Word Count: 1550
“It’s a jim-dandy!”
His voice was as bright as his sparkling blue eyes, and Ben Cartwright laughed with the pure pleasure of seeing his son’s happiness.
“I’m glad you like it,” Ben said. “Happy birthday, son.”
“Lemme see.” Joe reached for the shiny new jack knife, but Hoss pulled it away and held it high over his head, well out of his younger brother’s reach.
“Uh-uh,” Hoss said, shaking his head. “You’ll wear the new right off’n it, with your busy little paws. Let me at least enjoy it for a day or two first.”
Joe frowned, a little miffed, but the good-humored tone of his brother’s voice had taken away any sting from the words. The frown vanished into a grin as Joe shrugged and replied easily, “All right; happy birthday, Hoss.”
Adam glanced at the clock. “Hadn’t you boys better be getting started? Don’t want to be late for school.”
Ben and Adam shared a laugh at the twin expressions of disgust mirrored on the faces of Hoss and Joe.
“Get along with you,” Ben chuckled. “And don’t dawdle getting home this afternoon. Hop Sing will have a special dinner tonight to celebrate the occasion.”
“Yum, yum!” Hoss cried. “Don’t worry, Pa, we won’t be late!”
“What’re you gonna tell Pa?”
Hoss shook his head, miserable. “I dunno, Joe. But promise me you won’t say nothin’, all right?”
Joe’s face was a quilt of emotions – anger, confusion, worry and sorrow – all on behalf of his brother. “Why, Hoss? Why’d’ja do it?”
Hoss lifted his head and looked at Joe. The eyes that had been so bright and happy just that morning were now filled with pain. “Joe, just be quiet, now.”
The brothers stared at one another for a few moments, and then both fell silent. Their horses, heads drooping to match the mood of their riders, plodded toward home. Neither Hoss nor Joe spoke another word until they came around the corner of the barn and into the front yard of the Ponderosa ranch house.
“Don’t say nothin’ Joe, promise me.”
Joe shook his head, then nodded. “I promise. I don’t know what to say anyway.”
After tending their horses, the boys walked toward the house, side by side, the very picture of dejection. Joe glanced up at his brother and whispered, “If you go in there lookin’ like that, Pa’s gonna know for sure. You better liven up, Hoss.”
Still staring at his boots, Hoss nodded, and then, as the door to the house opened, he managed to smile.
“Right on time!” Ben’s booming voice drew his sons indoors. “Hop Sing is just ready to serve. Hungry? I think I smell some of your favorites …”
Adam, already seated, turned as his brothers came in to take their places around the table. “One thing for sure — we can all count on a great meal to celebrate birthdays around here, especially yours, Hoss.”
“Yeah … yeah, Adam.” Hoss’ laugh was weak, but fortunately it went unnoticed as Hop Sing chose that moment to make his entrance, carrying a huge platter of fried chicken.
“Your favorite,” Joe prompted, kicking Hoss under the table.
“My favorite!” Hoss echoed. “Thanks, Hop Sing.”
Joe rolled his eyes. Hoss’ cheeriness was obviously forced, but neither Pa nor Adam seemed to notice.
But the façade was destined to crumble.
As he spooned mashed potatoes onto his plate, Ben asked casually, “Did you show off your new knife at school today?”
Hoss tried, he really did. But deceit did not come naturally for him. Although he’d known this question, or one like it, was sure to come … although he’d anticipated this conversation all day, dreading it, worrying over it … all that agony had gone for naught as Hoss could only gulp and stare at his father, his face a mask of guilt.
Ben and Adam exchanged puzzled glances. Joe was suddenly very interested in green beans. Hoss opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, but no words were forthcoming.
The voice of Ben Cartwright was an amazing instrument. Its resonant tone was at once gentle and insistent, and Hoss was no match for either quality.
Startled, Ben watched as his son’s face dissolved into tears. Leaping to his feet, Ben hurried to his son’s side, putting a strong arm around his shoulder and leaning close. “Hoss! What’s the matter, son?”
Sobbing, Hoss could only shake his head, pointing a trembling finger across the table at Little Joe.
His voice sharp, Ben turned toward Joe. “What’s the meaning of this, Joseph? Did you do something to the knife? Lose it? Break it?”
“No, Pa,” Joe cried, and stared helplessly at Hoss. He had promised not to tell …
But Hoss, still crying, was nodding now, and finally managed to gasp, “Tell ’em, Joe.”
And so Joe told the story of how he and Hoss had arrived at the school yard … how Hoss had proudly showed off the knife, the knife he had yearned for, the shiny, bright jack knife with the intricate engraving on the handle, the many blades, glinting sharp in the afternoon sun; the knife that was the pride of the general store, the knife all the boys admired and coveted every time they walked by the display in the window …
Joe didn’t say those things, of course; he didn’t have to. Ben and Adam already knew how much Hoss had wanted that knife, how disappointed he had been when it had disappeared from the store window a full month before his birthday, sure some miner or cowboy or cardsharp had finally managed to reserve a few dollars from the saloons in order to purchase it.
Joe didn’t have to remind anyone of the joy they had seen on Hoss’ face just that morning, as the hoped-for knife had been placed in his hands. Yes, his hands, for the knife now belonged to Hoss, a gift from his father, a birthday wish come true.
Joe didn’t understand the story he was telling, but to the best of his ability, he told his father what had happened in the schoolhouse yard that morning. Only Hoss could have showed such a knife without showing off, and only Hoss could have been the center of a circle of admiring boys without being the object of jealousy.
And only Hoss would have noticed, in his moment of glory, the boy who stood apart from the others, the boy with the thin smile and the sad eyes.
Hoss had looked directly at this boy – his name was Jess Terrell – and Jess had whispered, “It’s a jim-dandy, Hoss.”
Jess didn’t have a pa. He didn’t have a ma. And he certainly didn’t have a jackknife.
Jess’ mother had died when he was young. He had lived a bitter life with his alcoholic father, who blamed the boy, blamed the world, for all the things that had ever happened, or never happened, to or for him. Old man Terrell had died two years ago, following a night of drinking, falling drunk and frozen in a dark alley in the early morning hours of a cold day that never really had a sunrise.
Jess had been on his own even while his father was living, so he just continued as he had been. Odd jobs and charity provided food that was meager but enough, and Jess considered himself fortunate to have been taken in at the livery stable. The work was hard; his boss was a rough man who spoke only in grunts, but he didn’t object if Jess slept in the hayloft above the stalls, an abode that was warmer and dryer and safer than the shack he had shared with his father had ever been.
Jess showed up occasionally at the schoolhouse, not so much to learn as to just be a part of things, if only for a little while. The concept of “playmates” was foreign to him, but it felt good, somehow, to be around other boys his age, to run with them in the schoolyard and take part in the games, pretending, for just that little while, that his threadbare clothes and bare feet didn’t matter.
The teacher was a wise woman who knew about things beyond textbooks. It so happened that when the thin boy with hungry eyes showed up, those were somehow the very same days that she wasn’t hungry at lunchtime. Jess was always willing to oblige when she asked if he would help keep good food from going to waste.
Joe didn’t say any of those things as he told the story; he didn’t have to.
All he said was, “Hoss gave his knife to Jess” … and that was all he had to say for Ben and Adam to know.
“Don’t cry, Hoss,” Ben said tenderly. “We’ll find another knife for you, don’t cry …”
Hoss lifted his tear-stained face toward his father’s. “Pa, that ain’t it…” he whispered. “I ain’t cryin’ because Jess has the knife. I’m cryin’ because that’s all he has.”