Chapter One - The Sheriff Is Surprised, And A Young Man Gets A New Name.
The young man fell back against the cool sheets of his new bed in his new room in his new house in his new life.
“Stiles,” he whispered to himself in the growing dark, a grin so wide it was almost painful on his face.
There in the safety and – to him – the opulence of the Sheriff's home, he realized that there were no arguments breaking out a few feet away, no worries of Mrs. Hammond shoving a set of squalling twins into his arms with the order to make them behave, no sad look in Ms. Alexander Spence's eye when she saw him there in the orphan asylum’s halls, a gangly, spotty, teen-aged giant among the small children who would most likely find homes within their first year of coming to Hopetown Orphanage. (The boys who lived out their youth in the asylum more often than not ran in the streets once turned out, wild and unchecked. Pryzyslaw knew that he was fortunate. He knew better than most, in fact, for the adults in his life up to that point had always seen fit to remind him of how fortunate he'd been.)
And in that moment he did feel fortunate, felt it in every neglected inch of his body and spirit. The only noises to be heard were of the gentle clopping of horses on the well-worn dirt road outside as they passed, much different from the steady cacophony of noisy, disgruntled urchins filling the cold, high hallways of Hopetown. The only thing to be felt was the soft cotton of the patchwork quilt on his new bed, not the usual stiff wincy of a uniform the others were forced to wear. Gone was the ugly, thick air of Portland's ship and train yards, a growing city on the move. Here was the quiet solitude of a sleepy town in northern California's forest, with only one train coming through on Wednesdays , Fridays, and twice on Saturdays for the weekly grain or cattle haul and occasional traveler.
The recently widowed Sheriff of Beacon Hills had sent a message to Hopetown's orphan asylum inquiring about taking one on, with hope for a young child to help him around the house, someone young enough to be trained to grow up right. Instead of an eight year old young boy or girl, they'd instead sent Pryzyslaw, the first of his family to have been born in the New World, all of sixteen with the broad – albeit thin – shoulders to prove that he was nearing manhood.
“It's close to the end of the road for you, dear,” the nun had said, running her hand fondly over the boy's freshly shorn head, a necessity to combat an outbreak of head lice in the asylum's cramped quarters. “This may be your last chance. Now. Mind your manners, do everything he asks of you, and for heaven's sake, watch that tongue of yours!”
Pryzyslaw had ducked his head at that, cheeks pink with shame and nervousness. His chatter had always gotten himself in trouble, but the world was so interesting; how was he to be expected to sit quietly day in and day out?
“If it wasn't a sin to swear, I'd swear your tongue was double hinged,” she'd clucked, pulling him in for a tight hug before pushing him onto the train headed southeast to Beacon Hills. His neighbor for the duration of the trip had made it perfectly clear that he wasn't interested in any of Pryzyslaw's questions or observations, (“Fourteen men died laying the piles for the Siskyou Pass; I wonder if we'll see their graves?” and “I don't think I was built to go this fast; thirty miles per hour seems an awful lot to expect of a fellow to keep his breakfast down,” and “I don't know why they'd call such a lovely patch of earth a slough, such an ugly word, don't you think?”) and so he'd had no one to share in his nervousness and excitement for his first train ride.
On the wooden slats of the platform at the height of the afternoon with the sun shining warm and a breeze carrying the delicious scent of clover and sweet hay (so strange that it hadn't smelled of the ocean, of decaying fish, of the ever-present choke of coal the asylum burned to keep the large stone building warm!), Pryzyslaw had stood, humming to himself as his knees bounced, waiting for the Sheriff to come collect him.
The heels of his shoes had made a loud clack with every step, and so he'd walked the length of the platform once all the other passengers had dispersed (thirty-two steps), walked the width of it (fifteen steps), smiling to himself at the sharp, unusual noise until the man at the ticket counter had cleared his throat and gave him a look. So there he'd stopped, fortunately near a post that was just the sort for leaning.
But Pryzyslaw wasn't the type of boy who could ever be still, something the nuns and ladies of the asylum had often dealt with by giving him the switch. (Infinitely better than the strap, which didn't sting so sharply, but could be felt for longer.) Fortunately, none of his caregivers from the asylum had been there at the time. In fact, no one had been there, aside from the man inside the ticket booth. Even though he was forever in a state of perpetual motion – something the other orphans had constantly teased him about, leading to the corporal punishment from the nuns, but he couldn't help it, it was like there was a buzzing under his skin unless he just moved – he'd carefully held his old carpetbag high and close to his chest. If it wasn't held just right, the handle fell off, and only Pryzyslaw knew the trick of it.
His pants were too short from his last growth spurt, leaving his skinny ankles bare, his cap was threadbare, and his shirt was far too tight at the seams of his shoulders to be anything but a poor cast off, but he was clean, he knew he could be well-mannered, and he was desperate to get away from the orphanage where he was also too kind-hearted to survive among the rough boys who were sent away for farm work, only to be sent back when they proved too coarse for the decent people of the surrounding townships once the laboring was finished. He'd preferred reading to arm wrestling, chatting to anyone who would listen rather than holding down the younger kids and overpowering them just for something to do, and studying more than playing cards out behind the asylum's kitchen.
While on mopping duty – the old stone floors of the asylum seemed to be in a constant state of griminess – he'd overheard the nuns talking about him. One had said in a kindly voice that this was an opportunity to send Pryzyslaw away, send him to a nice home in a nice town with a nice gentleman to look after him and keep him out of trouble, and they were taking it. Pryzyslaw had taken extra care in his prayers that night to list all of the nuns as he'd given thanks.
Sheriff Stilinski had arrived an hour past the appointed time, something that had begun to fill Pryzyslaw with dread that no one was coming, that he'd been tricked, that this was how they got rid of orphans who couldn't be quiet, who couldn't stop talking and asking questions, who couldn't control their insatiable need to know.
A tall man with sandy hair and kind eyes had walked past him, hardly making eye contact aside from a brusque nod and polite “How do.” The man had asked the ticket collector at the end of the platform about the four o'clock train. Pryzyslaw had strained to hear what they were saying, but hadn't been able to make out more than a few words at a time. “Younger than that.” “Little boy, mayhap?” And “But he's practically full grown!” were audible; not much else had been.
Pryzyslaw's stomach had roiled and his face felt hot all while his hands went clammy. There was no reason that Pryzyslaw couldn't be sent back if the man didn't want him. But eventually, the man had come back around and stood on the steps to the train depot just in front of him, rubbing his head and staring in disbelief before shrugging and softly asking if Pryzyslaw was hungry.
“I had an apple on the train, I don't want to be any trouble.”
The man had looked him up and down at that, eyebrows knitted together in concentration. Pryzyslaw had gotten the impression that the man was displeased with his answer.
“An apple isn't enough for a growing boy,” the man had said.
“Goodness, I wish someone would tell the ladies who deliver dinner at the asylum that,” Pryzyslaw had said with a wry sort of laugh and a sideways grin. “They told me plenty of times it was more than a lot of other children got, and well... I guess that's true. So I'm all filled up, honest.”
With a softer voice than before, the man had then asked Pryzyslaw for his name. Pryzyslaw began to pronounce his name slowly, spelling each syllable, when the man had shaken his head, knocked his knuckles gently against his own temple with a laugh.
“I'll never manage, never had the knack. That was the missus' domain.” The man's gaze had gone faraway, like he was in pain. He had blinked, then asked, “What do you think about me calling you...Stiles?”
“Stiles, sir?” Pryzyslaw had shifted, remembering almost before catastrophe struck to hold the handle of his bedraggled luggage at an angle so his meager belongings wouldn't fall all over the platform.
The man – he'd had a shiny badge on his jacket and was clearly the Sheriff – had smiled at him, a smile both sheepish and warm, almost wanting, and it'd made something dormant, something cracked and dry that had lived in Pryzyslaw's chest for years unfurl like a bean sprout – green and living and filled with hope – at the sight of it.
“Well, my last name's Stilinski,” the Sheriff replied, “and seeing as you're coming home with me, I figured...?”
Pry- no, Stiles had smiled and looked at the ground, nodding. His mother had died when he was born; the hospital had named him from a letter found among his mother's few personal effects, and it had been a cruel joke on him for sixteen years. But Stiles... It was a name that someone was giving him out of kindness, out of belonging, maybe even out of a sense of family. His chest had ached at the happy thought of it. It was like the new name was all a part of this new beginning Providence had seen fit to give him. “Okay. Yes, sir.”
The Sheriff had offered to take his bag from him as they walked to his buggy when Stiles hitched the bag up higher, keeping up with the Sheriff's long strides, suddenly feeling buoyant. He'd practically bounced up into his seat on the high buggy. “Oh, I can carry it! It isn't heavy at all. I've got all my worldly goods in it, but it's not too heavy in the slightest. And if you don't carry it a certain way, the handle pulls out, and then all of my books and the kerchief Ms. Alexander Spencer made for me so I'd have something like a real gentleman, seeing as I was coming to live with a real, live Sheriff–” Stiles had dared to shoot a furtive glance towards the man, still a little overcome with excitement that this was happening, still shocked that someone had finally come for him. “–and how I would need to be a bit better than just an orphan who couldn't get adopted, especially if I was going to live with such a fine, upstanding person, so she made that up for me as best as she could, and it has my papers and a set of jacks I won in a spelling bee. The luggage, not the handkerchief, I mean, has all of that. Well, I don't have all the jacks because sometimes the other boys like to take things that don't belong to them, like how I used to have this real fine card with my Catechism printed on it with a real nice picture of a sunrise painted on the back, but they got that from me one time – my fault, because I wasn't paying attention, I see that now after Ms. Thomas explained it to me – and while trying to grab it back, it ripped clean in half. They threw their half away, so I couldn't join the pieces together again, but now that I'm living with a real, honest to goodness Sheriff, why, I bet no one will ever take my things again.”
The Sheriff had grunted a displeased sort of noise before shaking the reins to get the horse to move along.
Stiles – Stiles! – had shifted in his seat, the old worn carpetbag safely stowed between his feet, and asked the Sheriff all about the countryside, asked what kinds of trees made those pretty white flowers, why the town seemed to favor brown sheep to a more common beige, did the Sheriff happen to like steamed cabbages and apples-n-onions because the caregivers at the asylum had taught him how to make quite a few dishes, and while it would be a challenge to learn how to only cook for two instead of thirty-five, he was up to the task, and did the Sheriff have a large number of livestock, and what church did he belong to, what sort of school did one have to attend to become a lawman, how many children were in the local school, and of course he would be expected to attend school, wouldn't he? It didn't matter that he was sixteen since the Sheriff wouldn't need him for farming him being a lawman and all? Did the other fellows of Beacon Hills expect to attend college or...?
The Sheriff had held the reins loosely in his hand, looking like he didn't know which question to answer first when Stiles had paused to catch his breath. “Um...”
Stiles had blushed and looked down at his hands as they worried and plucked the thinning wool at his trousers' knee; a patch would be needed soon. He knew that he needed to be on his best behavior during this initial grace period with the Sheriff. After all, it wouldn't have been the first time (nor the fourth or fifth) that he'd been sent back to Hopetown, the family disappointed in his chattering and clumsiness. “I'm sorry that I talk so much. It used to get me into lots of trouble.”
The Sheriff had laughed softly and bumped his shoulder into Stiles'. “I don't mind, as long as you don't expect me to talk the same amount.”
“Oh, gosh, no,” Stiles had laughed, feeling relief. “I'm happy to talk enough for the both of us.”
“That I don't doubt.” The Sheriff then cleared his throat and clucked the horse along. “It's been rather quiet back home for some time now. Be nice to fill it with conversation again, I expect.”
Another thrill had raced down Stiles' spine at the thought of having a home. A real home, something he'd almost stopped believing he'd ever have as he spent sleepless night after sleepless night in the orphanage, his thin rag of a sheet barely covering him as he shivered and squinched his lanky body into something that could fit onto the narrow cot with which all the orphans had been provided.
They had both fallen into a companionable sort of quiet for a moment when Stiles noticed a large, beautifully built home set just off the main road. It looked just like the gingerbread house in Ms. Spencer's book of fairy tales. “Oh, Sheriff, who lives there?”
The Sheriff had looked over at the house and smiled. “That's the Widow McCall's home. She has a son about your age, I believe. You'll be meeting him soon enough. I bet he'd make a fine friend for you.”
Stiles had longed for friends, but the boys at the asylum had made it clear that his voice, his incessant talking, his inability to control his limbs with any measure of grace meant that he was ripe for ridicule, not friendship. They called him “peculiar,” had made him feel odd for the affection he couldn't help but long to share with whomever finally caught his hard-won admiration, boy or girl. They had punched him and isolated him and made him feel as if it were strange to simply want to care for others. But weren't all people commanded in the Good Book to love one another? He guessed he just went about friendships and admiration all wrong seeing as he was just an uneducated orphan longing for someone to finally see him for all the good he believed he carried in his heart, hoping for someone for whom he could care for in turn.
His stomach had churned with both hope and trepidation at the thought of meeting the McCall boy. It was almost too much to ask for, seeing as he had finally been sent hopefully to be officially adopted. He mustn't get greedy.
Soon enough, they had arrived at their destination. After helping to put away the buggy and brush down the horse, he'd walked through the doors of the Sheriff's home with almost reverence, afraid to touch anything, afraid that his long, gangly limbs would get the better of him and knock over something precious, something irreplaceable, something that would make the Sheriff take back the name he'd given, send Pryzyslaw back to the orphanage, ripping away the last chance he'd ever have for a real home.
“Top of the stairs and on the right,” the Sheriff had said, his voice quiet and kind. “That'll be your room. I hope it's to your liking.”
Stiles had expected a small cot off the kitchen, not anything as opulent as– He'd swallowed thickly, nodding, and all but whispered, “A room of my own?”
“Why, of course! Go on, now,” the Sheriff had said, giving Stiles' shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Spread out some of those worldly goods of yours.”
At the hint of a smile on the Sheriff's face, Stiles had raced up the stairs, forgetting himself for a moment in his excitement. And now here he was, on a bed so plush and springy, it just couldn't be made of old worn out kitchen rags for stuffing like the few beds available at the asylum had been. Sheets so soft he couldn't believe they were meant for him, a boy too old to be wanted by most and from an orphanage so poor they could barely care for those they had in their charge to begin with. Why, he could take twenty steps in any direction before hitting a wall or piece of furniture. There was furniture! A beautiful highboy made of a warm-colored wood that glowed like it was lit from within, a fine and sturdy bed of wrought iron, and oh! He bit his lip and willed his eyes to stay dry: a bookshelf so wide he could stretch his arms out to the side and still have an inch of width left over. There weren't quite so many books on it, but any book was a gift. On a small bedside table sat a thick, unused candle in the middle of a beautiful ceramic candle holder, the kind with a loop for a handle. It made him think of the picture of Jack-be-Nimble in one of the still intact picture books back at the orphanage.
The walls were painted a peaceful pale blue, like a warm Spring sky, so different from the cold stone slabs back at Hopetown. He even had his own window, one that looked out at a giant oak tree, and just beyond that lay the lush green forest that stretched further than he could see. And it was all for him?
He stood, straightening the quilt back to perfection before sinking down into the sturdy wooden stool resting near the window. He caught his reflection in the glass and smiled at his old friend reflecting back at him. (His only friend, truthfully.) “Well, Peter,” he said quietly. “I'm glad to see you made it out of Hopetown, too. I don't think we'll be loaned out to any more folks, only to be sent back, no sir. I do believe we may just have found ourselves a home. The Sheriff, he's... well, he's not like the others.”
Stiles pressed his knuckles to his smile, feeling the tremors of his mouth as the hot sting of tears pricked at his eyes. This was almost more than a person could take; it was too much. A kind man, a lovely, welcoming home, books... It was more than Stiles – no, more than Pryzyslaw had ever hoped for. When he'd been very small, Pryzyslaw had often sought out quiet corners of the homes he'd been sent to – homes with beleaguered men who drank too much and women who were over-burdened with too many children, homes that didn't have a permanent place for a small, noisy, overly curious and homely boy with a difficult to pronounce name, so difficult he was usually just called “the Boy.”
Weeks could go by without a kind word said to him, and one day when he'd sat gloomily staring out of the window one late afternoon, he'd discovered Peter – a young boy just like Pryzyslaw with an upturned nose dotted with freckles, unlucky spots on his left cheek and jaw, too-wide pale brown eyes and a hunger to know – reflecting back at him in the glass. He'd begun the habit of sharing all of his feelings with a friend. After all, incorrigible and stroppy orphans like him couldn't be choosy over the friends they'd come by, make-believe in a reflection or no. Before he'd grown up, he would imagine that there was a magic trick, a spell that could help him step through the glass and live in the quiet, peaceful world where Peter lived. Anything to escape the chaos that had been his life in and out of the asylum over the past sixteen years.
And now it seemed he had found the home he'd dreamed of, and with a nice man who wouldn't rough him up for not knowing how to tend cattle, a man who wouldn't insult his name or his poor mother who couldn't help that she died in childbirth. The Sheriff seemed like a man with endless patience, given how he'd let Stiles ramble on the drive back, and seeing as he was a widower, perhaps had an understanding of how lonely a person's life, how empty their heart could be without someone with whom to share it. That dream of little Pryzyslaw's had always seemed impossible up until now.
It wasn't set in stone, the Sheriff still had a grace period before anything was finalized, but something in him thrilled at the possibility that this was it. This was where he'd be invited to stay for keeps.
“So Peter,” he said softly to his reflection, “I hope it won't hurt your feelings if I don't visit you much. I do believe I finally have someone who needs me more than you do. Of course you'll always be my first friend,” he said, brushing his knuckles against the glass, laughing quietly to himself. “But I just might be able to make a friend on this side of the glass soon.”
He pressed his heated cheek against the cool window pane and tried to control his smile. It was almost more than he could take, the sense of promise he felt. It had been so long since he'd let himself feel anything akin to hope. Something about the kindness in the Sheriff's eyes, the hope he saw reflected back in the man's gaze that was so similar to his own made him finally feel safe enough to let those feelings out some.
The next day found Stiles up early to fry up the Sheriff's breakfast, much to the Sheriff's surprise and delight. Stiles carefully pushed the large platter of fluffy Johnnycakes and thick, fragrant slices of fried ham towards the Sheriff. “I didn't see a coop out back, so I didn't want to assume I could fry up the eggs without checking with you first.”
“Stiles?” the Sheriff said around a mouthful of ham. “If you plan on cooking me food this good, you can use whatever you find. Mrs. Lynde next door gets after me every time she sees me bring a rasher of bacon home, and that's just one of the old hens pecking after me.”
Stiles laughed at that and smiled to himself, pleased to have done something right, then tucked into his own breakfast. After a moment, he couldn't contain his curiosity. Here he was sitting with a real sheriff who probably had stories galore, and Stiles was quite possibly wasting the opportunity. “Sir? Have you ever encountered any bank robbers?”
The Sheriff shook his head, taking a deep gulp of his coffee.
“What about train robbers? Horse thieves? Claim jumpers? Gunslingers? Stagecoach robbers? Cattle rustlers? Swindlers? Break-in artists?”
The Sheriff blinked slowly at Stiles' rapid-fire questions and shook his head again. Stiles sighed dejectedly and poked at his plate. Maybe it wouldn't be as exciting to live with a sheriff as the stories in the big city papers had led him to believe. Still, it was a home, and a good one at that.
“Not much need for the Pinkertons out here, I'm afraid,” the Sheriff said. He nodded to himself after a minute, settled back in his chair and said, “While I don't want to recount a tragedy that happened a few years back–” He shook his head. “–we did have a pretty big row out on Carmody Road last year, now that I think on it.”
Stiles leaned forward, eager to hear, and instantly curious about the tragedy of which the Sheriff wouldn't speak. And the fight, of course. As long as Stiles wasn't in the middle of it getting the stuffing knocked out of him, he guessed he didn't mind hearing about one.
“There's a family in town, the Whittemores. Own damn– excuse me. Durn near most everything on Main Street. The McCall boy – Scott, he's who you'll meet soon – accidentally bumped into the Whittemore's son, Jackson, coming out of the feed store, and it made Jackson drop whatever package he'd been carrying down onto the road. You'd think they had the family's china in that package, the hell– er, fuss, excuse me – they raised. They insisted that the McCall family replace everything in that package, including the things that hadn't even been damaged. And the Missus McCall just recently widowed,” the Sheriff clucked, shaking his head. “That's what having too much money'll do to you.”
It was clear to Stiles that the Sheriff didn't think much of those Whittemores.
“Now, I tell you that as a sort of lesson,” the Sheriff said. “You keep clear of their boy, and you'll do just fine here in Beacon Hills.”
Stiles cocked his head to the side, confused as to how he'd be interacting with said boy.
“He'll be up at the school day after tomorrow, of course.” The Sheriff pressed his lips together, his eyes sparkling with mirth. “Figured we may as well get you in school right away, even though there's only a few weeks left.”
Stiles sat perfectly still, his heart racing, his mouth open with a corner of his ham slice hanging out. Red-faced, he shoved the whole thing into his mouth and swallowed it whole, inducing a coughing fit. Stiles had always wanted to go to a real school, not just the corner of the kitchen at the orphanage with whatever Reader the nuns were able to procure.
“Day after tomorrow?” he asked, practically vibrating off his seat while the Sheriff sat across from him, amused.
“I'll sort out what to do for a supper pail for you, and if you check through those books in your room, you should find several textbooks. You can go through them to find which one is appropriate for however far you got back at Hopetown.” The Sheriff looked down at his plate, carefully laying his fork along the side. “Mrs. Stilinski was the town's school teacher before she passed.”
Stiles sat straight in his chair, eyes wide as his heart lurched at the complete sadness that flashed across the Sheriff's face. He guessed that being a widower was just as bad as being an unwanted orphan. “I'll take good care of them, sir, you have my word on it.”
The Sheriff smiled softly, looking up and into Stiles' eyes. Stiles could see the Sheriff was still hurting but trying to make the best of it. It was something with which Stiles was very familiar.
“I know you will, Stiles.”
Stiles cleared his throat, feeling embarrassed and strangely happy, knowing the Sheriff trusted him already. “I'll get all of this cleaned up, and then you can show me what chores you'd like for me to do to earn my keep?”
“That sounds fine. And once we're finished with that, I thought you might like to come with me on my rounds? Maybe we'll find reason to visit the McCalls, see what that Scott can tell you about the new teacher they hired. After Claudia...” The Sheriff cleared his throat. “The new teacher and I didn't see eye to eye on a situation a few years back, and I didn't pay much attention to how he handled his job as the new school teacher, seeing as I didn't have anyone in attendance and as there hadn't been any complaints requiring the law to be involved. So!” he clapped his hands together once. “Let's get to it, hmm?”
Excited by the prospect of meeting a potential friend, Stiles hopped to his feet and started grabbing dishes off the table, barely keeping his feet under him and the plates in his hands. Nervous as he was to meet the McCall boy, the way the Sheriff spoke about him made Stiles believe there must be something good in the other boy. The Sheriff wouldn't have liked the kind of fellows Stiles had grown up with, he just knew it; the Sheriff didn't seem to think much of that Whittemore boy, after all, making a widow replace items just out of spite, it seemed.
Stiles turned around, halfway to the sink from the large farm table where they'd had their breakfast, dishes piled precariously in his arms, a half-eaten Johnnycake crammed in his mouth and a mug dangling from one finger. His foot slipped, but he quickly righted himself before everything went tee-totaling to the floor. “Yes, sir?”
“Maybe take a few trips, huh?”
Stiles nodded, his cheeks flooding red with embarrassment. The Sheriff didn't look mad, not like Mrs. Thomas had anytime Stiles had been on kitchen duty with her. No, the Sheriff looked amused, if not a little worried for the state of his dishes.
“Um, yes, sir.”
Stiles focused on doing the best job he could on his chore, relaxing somewhat as he heard the Sheriff laugh to himself, still sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee.
Stiles didn't care much about his clothes, as long as they were decent. The shoes he'd been given at Christmas at the asylum didn't really fit, but if he curled his toes up and walked on the outside edge, they didn't pinch too much. Evidently that wasn't good enough for the Sheriff, as he stopped hooking up his sorrel to the buggy in order to stare down at Stiles' feet.
“Hmm. That explains a lot,” the Sheriff murmured to himself, rubbing the back of his neck. “Feel comfortable in those, do you?” he asked, not making eye contact. “Nice and roomy, are they?”
Stiles shifted from foot to foot, not wanting to be a burden. He already had the wonderful room, regular hot meals, the promise for schooling... His shoes still had sturdy soles, after all. He didn't need anything else, was how he saw things. He didn't want to make the Sheriff think having him around would be a burden after all and send him back to Hopetown.
“These have a lot of steps left in them, I suspect,” he said, running his palm over the short bristles of his hair. “One of the Sisters at the asylum told me when I turned thirteen that while I wasn't much to look at, if I kept myself neat and tried to control my hands and feet I'd prove to be useful. I haven't always had control of my feet and hands–”
The Sheriff laughed quietly at that.
“–but what's a homely orphan like me need with a new pair of shoes? I'm just going to be standing in a kitchen or shoveling coal or the like. No need to dress up for that. Besides,” Stiles said, running his hand along the well polished wood of the Sheriff's buggy in open admiration of the craftsmanship, “it's better to be smart and good than handsome, right? See, I got a new coat once. Well, it was new to me. I think it had only been worn by one of the older boys before consumption got him.” He shrugged, squaring his shoulders and smiling back at the Sheriff. “I didn't notice my life improve much, just from the having of something a mite nicer than usual.”
“Uh huh.” The Sheriff held his gaze for a minute, something softening around the older man's eyes before he looked away to check the heavy metal latch. The Sheriff patted his horse on its flank and cocked his head towards the buggy. “Hop in. I do believe I need some supplies from the General Store. Mind the detour before we pay our visits?”
“No, Sir!” Stiles said, hopping up alongside the Sheriff after making sure the barn door was latched tight.
“Good.” The Sheriff lightly tapped the reins on the harness to let the horse know he was ready. They pulled onto the lane with a small lurch. It wasn't enough to explain why the Sheriff leaned his shoulder into Stiles, though. “You might keep an eye out for a new pair of work boots while we're there.”
Stiles opened his mouth to say that he had enough, that the Sheriff didn't need to do anything else when the Sheriff continued, “I mean, what if I need your help running down a perp? That's lawman talk for–”
“Perpetrator, I know that one!” Stiles said, a wide smile breaking out on his face at the thought. Stiles had a deep and abiding love for detective stories and mysteries and had sought out the serials in the newspapers every chance he'd had. It was why living with an actual-fact Sheriff seemed so exciting. “You really think I might do that one day?”
The Sheriff smiled to himself and clucked the horse along.
The Sheriff had gone inside first, leaving Stiles with the responsibility of hitching up their horse and buggy outside the store. Stiles was triple-checking his work when he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He felt a chill prickle down his spine when he sensed a large boy – or was it a man? – walking behind him, walking too slowly to just be passing by.
Stiles whirled around to come face-to-face with a very handsome boy who seemed a few years older than Stiles. He was undeniably manly with a broad chest, thickly muscled shoulders, and an air of strength about him for all that he had a fine, tapered waist. He was down to shirtsleeves rolled up at the elbow, and Stiles all but gulped at the flexing tendons in the young man's forearms as he hoisted a heavy bag of grain higher up onto his shoulder. He had glossy, almost unruly black hair that somehow looked soft to the touch and the most piercing green eyes Stiles had ever seen. He was also scowling right at Stiles.
Stiles swallowed his nerves and gave what he hoped looked like a friendly wave. The young man gave Stiles a thorough once over – so thorough that Stiles' heart ratcheted up and his palms began to sweat because he couldn't understand what that could mean, that heated, questioning look from a stranger.
The young man held his gaze for a long moment – long enough that Stiles felt struck queer and tingly all over from its intensity – before he nodded his chin and stalked off, not making eye contact with any of the men or women he passed.
Before Stiles could catch his breath and try to understand just what that was all about, especially why it seemed to have affected him so, the Sheriff poked his head out of the store's door. “I think if you tie that horse up any tighter, it'll take that Houdini fellow to come let Roscoe go. Now get in here and pick out some shoes, would you?”
Stiles' stomach dropped, worried he'd upset the Sheriff by dawdling, but caught the small, sideways smile on the older man's face before the Sheriff ducked back inside. Stiles felt all limbs and nerves as he walked into the store, forcing himself to take a deep breath and shake off the strangeness of the past few minutes. But that wasn't to be, it seemed.
“I'm sorry, sir, I just wanted...to...” Stiles felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. He'd almost walked right smack into the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. Maybe she was the most beautiful girl that had ever been.
She was small, a few heads shorter than Stiles was, with pink cheeks, green eyes (not quite as piercing as the fellow outside, but still an attractive shade) and hair tumbling over one shoulder the color of flame. She stood with her back stiff, her pointed chin held high, and had been gazing at herself in a small mirror, a part of a display there near the front door, Stiles realized as she set the silver-backed thing on a shelf.
“It's the Lady of Shallot...” he whispered with an almost reverence. One of the few books at the asylum that didn't have missing pages was a collection of Lord Tennyson's poems, and Stiles had read it many times over the years, staring at the red-headed woman in the figure plate alongside the poem in fascination.
The girl reared back with an almost disgusted expression for the poor waif in front of her, not that Stiles could help how he looked. Providence had just seen fit to make him lanky, spotty, uncomfortable in his own skin and perpetually awkward, the nuns had always said.
“I beg your pardon,” the young woman sniffed – she was fiery and sweet all at the same time, and how did she manage to look down her nose at Stiles who was easily towering over her? – before turning sharply on her heel in a huff and marching swiftly out of the door. A very polished, very dashing young man, his arms laden with packages, followed, but fixed Stiles with a cruel and angry look before sweeping past and beyond after the young lady, Stiles presumed.
A hand came down hard on his shoulder, but the gentle squeeze and small shake snapped him out of his fear.
“Oh, boy,” the Sheriff said, giving Stiles' shoulder one more small shake before gently guiding him with a hand at the back of Stiles' neck through the store towards the far shelves deeper inside the shop.
“Who-who was that?” Stiles asked, tripping over his feet before the Sheriff caught him by the elbow to keep him from crashing into a neatly stacked row of canned preserves.
“That was Miss Lydia Martin, and the young man with her shooting you death glares was her beau, Jackson Whittemore.”
Stiles whipped his head around towards the Sheriff from where he'd been eying the door in the hopes that the Titian goddess would come back through and saw the bemused expression on the Sheriff's face. “Whittemore?” Stiles asked. “The one you told me about yesterday?”
“Yep, that very one.”
Stiles stood completely still, chewing on the inside of his cheek as he contemplated the most beautiful woman on earth being followed after like a puppy by the one young man the Sheriff had warned him about. If that didn't beat all... “I didn't make a very good first impression, did I?”
“That you did not. Let's see if we can't spruce you up a little, see if that helps your chances any. You're not winning any hearts in that get up.” The Sheriff nodded towards a row of fine, shiny black leather boots. Stiles was beginning to appreciate that when the Sheriff laughed, it wasn't at Stiles' expense in a way to be cruel. His own frustration with himself for being gawky, unattractive and poor in the face of such a fine lady was tempered with the happy feelings he had every time the Sheriff did something kind for him.
“Well, you know what they say about silk purses from a sow's ear,” Stiles mumbled, his hands jammed deep into his well-worn pants' pockets as he eyed the row of fine boots.
The Sheriff laughed at that, slinging his arm over Stiles' shoulder. Right at that moment, Stiles didn't care that Miss Lydia Martin had looked at him like he was mud on the bottom of her shoe, didn't care that his pants were so thin and worn they could be used to sift flour, didn't care that strangers in the shop were looking over at him and whispering to one another. All he cared about was the peculiar and unfamiliar sense of serenity that blossomed warm and hopeful in his chest every time the Sheriff spoke with fondness or bestowed gentle, fatherly touches with kindness.
“I like the one about fine feathers and birds, myself,” the Sheriff replied, waving over the stout, determined-faced elderly woman behind the register.
“–but the room was locked! There was no way to get inside, what with the window boarded up and the door having a triple latch on it, and yet somehow the Colonel with the stolen emerald amulet managed to get himself murdered right there inside of it,” Stiles said, barely catching a breath as he told the Sheriff about one of his favorite crime serials. “You could go over the room with a magnifying glass and comb, and you wouldn't find a single clue. Why, it seemed impossible that anyone could get in, let alone commit a murder. And boy, what a list of suspects! The Sergeant who quit the war, the disgruntled second cousin, the mysteriously quiet neighbor, the overly friendly fellow who delivered the milk. Why, even his old Aunt Matilda should have been seriously considered by the detective in the end, even if she had the gout and couldn't walk much – she's who my money was on, if I was a betting sort, that is, because there was just something about her I didn't trust. But who knows...” Stiles heaved a massive sigh. Even though he'd read that particular story over and over, he still thrilled at the seeming impossibility of the murder mystery. And seeing as the asylum's copy was missing the last eight pages of their book, he'd spent lots of his free time trying to figure out who'd done it and why.
The Sheriff ran a hand over his face and pulled the left rein, turning down onto their lane. “So you never read the ending or found out who'd murdered the poor sot?”
“Nope,” Stiles replied, dangling one leg off the side of the running board and catching the shine of the fine set of black boots the Sheriff had insisted on. He'd never had such a grand pair of shoes, and they had enough room for him to wiggle his toes and spread them out, besides.
(The Sheriff had also shoved a couple pair of new woolen socks onto the small pile of unrelated purchases when he saw that no darning seemed to hold Stiles' current – and only – pair of socks together, even though they'd clearly been stitched up multiple times. “May as well get some new trousers while we're at it. And a few shirts, one for Sunday best and a couple for school. Wouldn't want to give me a bad reputation for not providing for my new ward, now would you?” After a few ticklish and awkward measurements had been taken and in places that left Stiles red-faced and burning up with embarrassment, the old lady behind the register promised to have the clothes all taken in where needed and sent to the Sheriff's home that evening before supper.)
“Gosh, I bet that Sherlock Holmes could have solved that mess lickity-split,” Stiles mused.
The Sheriff coughed. “Stiles? Maybe don't use such bold language around the Widow McCall.”
Stiles bit his lip, his face flooding with embarrassment. Well, this was what came of having no other playmates than other wretched orphans of no account, he supposed.
“Speaking of the Widow McCall,” the Sheriff said, pulling their kit to a stop and hopping down to hitch up Roscoe, “she's a tough one, and make no mistake.” The Sheriff said that with admiration in his voice, Stiles noticed. “Be smart, be polite, and...” The Sheriff paused in forming a half-hitch with the reins at the McCall's fence, looking over at Stiles with what could almost be considered a pleading look if it weren't on the face of an honest-to-goodness lawman, someone who had no reason to plead to any man. “Maybe try and hold your tongue. Just until she gets used to you?”
Stiles nodded briskly, working his hands together. Suddenly he felt nervous. What if he embarrassed the Sheriff? What if the Widow McCall didn't like him? What if her son didn't like him? This was his first chance at making a decent friend; his stomach was tied up in knots.
“Now, don't go shaking yourself to pieces,” the Sheriff said with a sigh. He draped his arm over Stiles' shoulder and led him to the front door. “You're going to be just fine.” He knocked on the door and said quietly, “I think.”
A lovely woman, younger than Stiles had expected for being a widow and all, with dark, curly hair and a beautiful smile, answered the door. 'Why, Sheriff Stilinski! To what do we owe the pleasure of a visit?” She paused, suddenly looking stern as she leaned forward and asked sharply, “It isn't about Scott, is it?”
The Sheriff smiled and shook his head. “No, your boy is as trouble-free as they come.”
The Widow McCall snorted – a lady as beautiful and elegant as she seemed to be snorting! – and said, “I don't know about that; these grey hairs of mine would like to put forth their argument on the issue. Well, let's not stand here on ceremony, do come in.”
The Sheriff nodded and allowed Stiles to enter first.
“I see you have a guest with you,” she said, motioning towards a fine horse-hair covered divan for them to sit. “And who might you be?”
“Stiles?” she asked, looking to the Sheriff. “But, I thought he was the Polish boy the asylum up in Oregon sent you?”
“I, uh, felt this name might be easier on the folks here in town than his given name,” the Sheriff answered. “Makes it a bit closer to mine, don't you think?”
Stiles beamed back at her because he couldn't have agreed with the Sheriff more.
“Well, Stiles it is, then,” she said, smiling sweetly. “Why don't you go on through that doorway and have my son Scott show you his books? It seems that's all he wants to do lately is read. He'll ruin his eyes reading that much indoors. Maybe having someone his age to associate with could help get him outside more.” She turned to the Sheriff and said, “The doctor wants to expose him to fresh air as much as possible, but I'd always noticed his breathing got more difficult the more time he spent outside. But Doctor Deaton has a real connection with Scott and was educated back East, so I have to trust he knows what he's talking about.”
Stiles left the adults to discuss Scott McCall's malady as he went off looking for him. Stiles steeled himself as he carefully stepped through the fine house. He was dreadful nervous not knowing what to expect at all of this Scott fellow. After passing a few closed doors, he came to a beautiful room lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves – and they were all packed to bursting with books of all sorts. That was where he found a young man, about Stiles' own age he guessed, with a head full of dark curls like his mother, stretched out sideways in a chair. Stiles couldn't tell much about the young man's face, seeing as it was buried nose-deep in a large book.
Stiles stood in the doorway, not sure what to do. The boy was completely engrossed in his book and hadn't realized there was a stranger standing there. After clearing his throat a few times didn't seem to break the boy's concentration, Stiles stepped forward with a bit of a huff – he'd been worked up all day, now, worried about making this important friendship, and almost hadn't been able to choke down an apple the Sheriff had handed him after leaving the General Store he was so torn up about things not going well – and still this boy wouldn't ease his nerves some by even saying hello?
Stiles creeped closer to find that the boy wasn't even reading the book he held, but some papers hidden in the crease. Oho!
“What's that, do you wonder?” Stiles asked, dumbstruck by this blatant deceit in the house of a woman the Sheriff so admired.
The boy gave a yelp in his apparent startlement and slammed the book shut tight. With a hand pressed to his chest, he wheezed, “Who are you?”
“Stiles, and I came with the Sheriff,” Stiles said, stepping forward to shake hands.
Scott took his hand with something akin to wonder. “Are you to be jailed, then?”
Stiles laughed at that, his whole body thrown into it. “Fine ward I'd be, already getting myself jailed and not having lived with him for a full day, yet. After all, I want him to agree to keep me.”
A genuine smile broke out across Scott's face, and he quickly stood, the book and magazine forgotten on the floor. “I heard he was adopting someone, and I guess you're it! I thought it would be a young boy, myself. I'm sixteen, how old are you?”
“Sixteen as well, and I guess I still want to know what's that you're reading?”
Scott's face went red all over and his smile turned sheepish. “Don't make fun, but...” He walked to the door, peering towards the receiving room where his mother and the Sheriff were still gaily talking. “I got them off an older boy who works at the hospital. They're the penny dreadfuls. I'm real fond of crime stories.”
“If that don't beat all! Me, too!” Stiles gave back an earnest grin and jammed his hands into his pockets, wincing when he felt a rip in the pocket lining grow larger. Well, there were new trousers coming later, and it wasn't like he needed to keep a coin in it seeing as he didn't have any. “I've read all the Detective Dupin stories, everything by Wilkie Collins, and loads of others from the papers, besides. What's that one you've got about?”
The next half hour passed with the two boys comparing notes on favorite stories, what made the best sort of story (Stiles said crime, Scott preferred the sensational novels for the emotional upheaval they caused), how far along in school were they (Stiles didn't really know, and Scott would be taking the Entrance Exams in a year's time), what pie was superior (Stiles said vinegar as it was all he'd ever tasted, to which Scott indicated that his mother's gooseberry pie couldn't be beat, and he would make sure that Stiles had the opportunity to taste it soon), and other sorts of topics most young men are curious about: what fellows were the friendly sort, and what was the state of the young ladies of Beacon Hills.
Just as Scott was about to lay out the hierarchy of available girls in town, the Sheriff poked his head in.
“Well, it's a real shame you two aren't getting on.”
Stiles and Scott smiled at each other, both sprawled out on their bellies on the floor with a stack of books and newspapers spread before them. Stiles, wanting to be respectful and prove his worth, jumped to his feet with Scott following suit.
“Stiles, I'm going to finish my rounds and wondered what you thought about maybe staying here while I did so? Mrs. McCall says it's fine with her if it's fine with you–” He looked to Scott as he said this. “So Scott, as the man of the house, I defer to you.”
Stiles and Scott looked at each other fair trembling with excitement, then both quickly and in synch with one another turned back to the Sheriff, nodding briskly. “Yes, sir, that's fine by me!” Scott replied.
“Try not to make another of those special sort of impressions with Mrs. McCall like you did with Miss Martin, hmm?”
Stiles winced, worried he'd already left a black mark on his record, until he saw the Sheriff's smile. It was going to take a bit for him to get used to the Sheriff's teasing. Stiles liked it; it made him feel like he and the Sheriff were making a real connection, like they were building something between the two of them, something that would hopefully last. It was almost more than he ever hoped for and his heart swelled with how lucky he felt just then.
Stiles grinned back to match the one on the Sheriff's face and gave him a nod. “Yes, sir!”
The Sheriff smiled at them both before nodding his head and leaving. Scott punched Stiles genially on the shoulder and asked his opinion on finishing a plate of sweets that his mother had baked the day before.
It turned out that they were of the same opinion on the matter, and not a cookie was left.