Word Count: 1750
He had not expected the laughter. He had not thought that anyone would laugh AT him but they did. He had stood there in front of them and smiled and listened to the introduction by the teacher and they had laughed. He had continued to stand there for a while, listening to the teacher talking and he had worn the smile on his face while the pain of the laughter dripped into his heart the way acid drips onto metal and burns it away. So the pain swelled more and more until all the joy of the day had melted away.
So much excitement and so much anticipation all evaporated and ran into nothingness. He looked at the laughing faces and every bone of his body ached with misery. He recognized them as boys and girls he had seen in the town when he had come on the wagon with Adam and Pa. He knew them, and they knew him, but still they laughed.
He managed to reach his seat. A wooden bench with a desk top attached. He could feel the heat of his face as he eased his body into the gap. He could hear the whispers and the giggles as they wafted around him and he could see the sly looks, the smirks behind fingers to hide their mouths while their shoulders shook with mirth. He tried to get up and away but his shirt button got caught on the desk and the lid went up a few inches and then banged down, and worse still to come … the button popped off and shot across the aisle and landed in Sid Murphy’s lap.
Sid Murphy held it up for all to see and pointed at the boy who sat wedged in the gap between seat and desk. The children laughed again. Shrill giggles. Snorted snuffles behind grubby sweating hands. The pain surged through his whole being, and without a word, he eased his frame from the seat and ran out of the schoolroom.
Adam Cartwright forked fresh hay into the mangers and passed by the horses in their stalls with a pat on their necks and a fond caress of the soft nostrils. He filled a bucket with water and carried it from the pump to the troughs and began to fill them. He paused only once in his work to glance upwards as something moved to cause straw and dust to sift down from between the boards. He moved to one side and continued to pour the water while he regarded with some seriousness the boards and the slowly descending dust motes drifting, swirling downwards as they were caught in the shaft of light from the door.
He emptied the bucket and walked out of the stable and leaned against the wall. He looked up at the sun as it beamed down onto the yard and he knew it was the second hour after noon. He folded his arms across his chest and lowered his head in silent contemplation. His brother would be nearly at the end of his first day at school in Virginia City. A school house built mainly of Ponderosa pine. It had been a day that had began with an excited little boy running from one room to another, talking volubly about the days coming adventure to anyone who would listen.
Adam slowly mounted the steps of the ladder to the hayloft and peered over the edge of the floor. Huddled in the corner he saw the boy who sat with his knees up to his chin and his arms hugging them close to chest.
“Bad day, huh?” the youth said very quietly as he took his place beside his brother and placed a gentle hand on his arm.
“Guess…guess so,” came the quiet muffled response.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“Do you want me to tell Pa to come and talk with you?”
Adam frowned and glanced once again at the boy at his side. He put a gentle pressure on the lad’s arm and bent his head to peer more closely at the ruddy face and saw the streak of tears that smeared the hot red flushed cheeks and the swollen puffy eye lids. He sighed, “Do you want me to go into town and thrash ‘em?” he asked.
“We could do it together.” Adam smiled, a vain attempt to cajole an answering smile from his brother but the boy at his side only shook his head and muttered something, while a shudder shook his body.
“They laughed at me,” he whispered suddenly, just as Adam was about to turn away on the assumption that the child would talk when ready to do so. Hoss raised his head and looked at Adam with his blue eyes lost in the red rimmed puffiness caused by many tears that had been shed on his long trek home.
“Laughed at you? Why?”
“Because…” Hoss inhaled a deep breath and shuddered again. The pain of the humiliation seared through him once more. A hard heavy fist of self loathing clutched deep within his heart. “Because I’m big and I’m ugly.”
Adam frowned and looked at his brother. He shook his head in bewilderment. He wondered why anyone could laugh at such a handsome boy. Sure, Hoss was big — much bigger than the average nine year old — but he was strong too, and his face was genial and gentle and kindly. There was trust and loyalty there, warmth and honesty. He saw what he saw from years of love for Inger’s son and he ached now with the compassion he felt for him.
“See, it’s true. You agree with ‘em. You ain’t said nothing so you must agree with ‘em. I’m fat. I’m plain fat and ugly and they laughed at me.”
“No, Hoss, no, you ain’t…”
“No use denying it, Adam. That’s what I am. I ain’t never going to go back there and be laughed at agin, never.” He pulled himself away from his brother and turned his back to him, while a sob sent a shudder trickling down his spine, “Shucks, Adam, I allust knew I was different from most boys my age, but Tom Riley’s ears stick out like a mules and no one laughed at him. No one laughed when Peter Jennings’ pants fell down cos his Ma couldn’t afford nothing better. It was jest when I got up and the teacher was telling them who I was and they all started laughing. Then I got stuck in the seat cos the darn thing was too small and they laughed agin. I jest felt an idjit, Adam.” He wiped tears from his face, wiped away tears and blinked rapidly to stop more from flowing, “It hurt, Adam, it hurt, right here…” He touched his heart and looked with wide eyed trust and pain into his brother’s dark eyes.
Adam pulled his brother roughly towards himself in a tight embrace. Hoss, a boy even then bigger than his twelve year old brother, clung tightly to Adam and buried his face in his brother’s shirt. He could feel the beat of his brother’s heart and the rhythm of it was soothing, and he took a deep breath as though now things were settling back into some semblance of order.
“Hoss, you have to go back.” Adam said sternly, regarding his now with a fond look.
“I ain’t, though.”
“But you must, Hoss.” Adam pushed his brother from him and looked again at the flushed angry face of the younger boy, “Hoss, look at me? What do you see, huh?”
“I see you, Adam. Jest about the handsomest boy I know.”
Adam shook his head and smiled slowly,
“That’s because you see me through your eyes, Hoss. To that class of kids, I would be just a boy with ears that stick out, crooked teeth and too many freckles and too big an opinion of himself. Of course, I come regular sized — that’s in my favor, I guess. Hoss, you see me through the eyes of…of what we share together. How we feel about each other. But they don’t see us like we see each other. You have to go back so that they can get to see what we see in you, and so that they can get to love the things about you that we love. Hoss, it doesn’t matter that they laughed at you today. They won’t laugh at you tomorrow, I promise you that …”
“They won’t? Why not?” Hoss asked, his blue eyes widening in disbelief as he stared at his brother’s earnest face.
“Because today they were all frightened of something. They were just plain scared, and when you stood up, they laughed because they were scared, that’s all.”
“But I was scared too.”
“Yeah, but you’re different.”
“Because I’m big and…”
“No,” Adam interrupted, “No, Hoss. Because you’re a Cartwright.” Adam thrust out his chin and raised his head, “And anyhow, tomorrow they won’t be scared anymore because they got through their first day at school. They’ll just be feeling a mite ashamed of themselves and wanting to be good towards you.”
“Sure they will, Hoss.” Adam nodded reassuringly.
Hoss frowned and nodded. He felt the start of a smile touch his lips. The pain was slowly ebbing away as he looked at his brother once again,
“I’ll always be different from them, won’t I?” Hoss said quietly, but with more confidence in the words, as though the realization of his difference was not so terrible after all.
“That’s a certainty, Hoss. But there’s a lot of ways of being different,” his brother replied with a smile of his own as he put out a hand to take that of his brother and help haul him to his feet.
“I don’t think your ears stick out that much, not really. Jest a mite, p’raps.”
Adam grinned, and tossed a handful of straw in his brother’s direction. Hoss Cartwright took a deep breath and nodded to himself. Yes, he would always be different, but as Adam said, there were lots of ways of being different. Good ways, as well as bad.