Summary: When twelve-year-old Joe comes home from school without his jacket, it’s up to Hoss to find out why.
Rated: K WC 1700
Hoss looked up as the front door opened, letting in a blast of chilly late-autumn air. His genial smile faded as he saw his twelve-year-old brother slip in and slam the door tight behind him. The boy had been wearing a jacket when he’d left that morning, but he wasn’t now.
“What the—dadburnit, boy, where’d you lose your jacket this time?” He was on his feet and across the room before the skinny kid could have a chance to escape. “You get over here and get yourself warmed up,” he scolded as he shepherded the shivering boy over to the fire. He snatched the rough Indian blanket from the back of the settee and wrapped it around Little Joe, setting him on the edge of the table, right in front of the fire.
“Pa’s gonna have your hide,” Hoss continued. “That was a brand-new jacket—and it was expensive. You’re gonna be cleanin’ out the chicken coop for a month of Sundays to pay for a new one.”
“I can wear my old one,” said Joe, but his teeth were chattering so hard that Hoss could barely understand him.
“How’re you plannin’ to do that?” demanded his big brother. “You could barely fit into it last spring! ’Sides, you pretty much wore it out. Even if Hop Sing can find it, it ain’t gonna be good as much besides a cleaning rag.”
Little Joe bit his lip. “Don’t tell Pa,” he whispered.
Hoss fought the urge to roll his eyes. “I ain’t gonna have to tell,” he said. “Pa’s gonna know next time you go to put your jacket on and it ain’t there. Now, where was the last place you had it? Maybe we can go out and look for it before it gets too dark.”
Little Joe shook his head. “Nope,” he said, not looking up. “We ain’t goin’ after it.”
Hoss’s brow furrowed. “Somebody take it from you? That Grover boy givin’ you trouble?”
Joe shook his head again. “Huh-uh.”
“Then what’s goin’ on?” Hoss sat on the hearth, knee to knee with his little brother. “Joseph, do you know where that jacket is?” Joe didn’t look up. “Joseph. Look at me.” Joe raised his chin, equal parts nervousness and defiance in his eyes. “Do you know where your jacket is?”
“Yes.” A direct answer to a direct question.
“Where is it?”
But Joe shook his head again. “I can’t tell you,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Reverend Miller says the right hand’s not supposed to tell the left hand what it’s doin’.”
“Huh? What are you talkin’ about?”
Joe sighed as if his big brother were a little slow. “It’s like Pa says—when you do stuff for people, you don’t go talkin’ about it.”
Hoss peered at his little brother. Something was going on that was bigger than just a jacket. “Joe, what’d you do?” he asked. Joe shook his head, and then it clicked in Hoss’s mind. He rested his hand on the boy’s knee. “Joe.” He waited until the boy looked up. “Who did you give the jacket to? An’ don’t worry—I promise, it’s okay to say,” he added when his brother hesitated.
“Matthew Greer,” he whispered.
“I don’t think I know him,” said Hoss.
“They’re new in town,” said Joe. “It’s just Matthew and his ma and his little sister. I don’t know where his pa is. A couple of the kids said his ma cleans houses for some of the rich ladies.”
“That’s good honest work, and it ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of,” said Hoss firmly.
“I know,” said Joe. “But I guess it doesn’t pay too good. So—you know how cold it was this morning, and Matthew came to school without a jacket, and—well, I told Miss Jones to give him the one I had, ’cause I didn’t figure he’d take it from me.”
“Miss Jones let you just give away your jacket on a day like this?” Something didn’t sound right. The ground had been thick with frost when they got up, and the day had never gotten much warmer.
“I told her it was an extra one,” Joe admitted.
“So you told your teacher a lie.” Hoss did his best imitation of Pa’s stern glare.
Joe bit his lip. “I—I had to, Hoss. I knew she wouldn’t let me give it away if she thought I didn’t have another one.”
Hoss looked down for a moment to hide his smile. Abigail Jones might have her blind spots, like her inability to see that Adam didn’t cotton to her, but she was no fool. She wouldn’t have allowed Little Joe to ride home without a jacket, unless. . . .
“Did she think maybe Adam would be pickin’ you up in town?” he suggested.
Joe nodded, eyes downcast.
“’Cause maybe that’s what you told her? That Adam was bringing in your other jacket?”
Joe nodded again.
“An’ you told her that even though you know it’s wrong to tell a lie.”
A hesitant nod.
“An’ you know you’re gonna have to tell her the truth tomorrow.”
Another nod, still slower.
“An’ if she thinks you should be punished for lying, you’ll take that punishment, and you won’t complain about it.”
One more reluctant nod.
Hoss patted the boy’s knee reassuringly. “You know, Little Brother, if you’d waited ’til you got home and asked Pa, I know he’d have bought that boy a jacket.”
“But I wouldn’t have seen Pa until tonight, and then we couldn’t have gotten the jacket until tomorrow,” said Joe, his eyes earnest. “And Matthew was cold today.”
Matthew was cold today. Dadburn Little Joe, anyway. Headstrong little cuss. Always leaping before he looked, and then it was up to somebody else to get him out of trouble. Hoss just knew the boy hadn’t thought for an instant about what Pa would say when he came home without a jacket, or whether he’d get in trouble for lying to the schoolteacher. He could have caught himself a humdinger of a cold, or worse, riding home in his shirtsleeves in this weather, but Hoss would have bet a month’s wages that Little Joe hadn’t thought about that, either.
The only thing that boy had thought about—the only thing that had mattered—was that Matthew Greer was cold today. Hoss squeezed his little brother’s knee, his throat thick with pride.
“Come on,” he said, rising. “We gotta get going.”
Joe looked up, confused. “Get going where?”
“I reckon we got some shopping to do before Pa and Adam get back from the timber camp,” Hoss said. “Can’t have you runnin’ around in the cold without a jacket. Pa’d have my hide if I let you do that.”
“We don’t have to tell him what happened to the other one, do we?” Joe asked hopefully.
Hoss frowned. “Why wouldn’t we?”
Joe sighed impatiently. “I told you,” he said. “Pa says that when you do stuff to help people, you don’t talk about it. I only told you ’cause you asked, but if I already have a new jacket, Pa won’t know to ask.”
Hoss chuckled. “Pa don’t mean you have to keep what you did a secret from everybody,” he explained. “He means that you don’t go spreadin’ it around about what you did so’s folks’ll be impressed. That’s a whole lot different from telling the family. Besides, I think Pa’d want to know about this.” He tousled the boy’s hair. Pa would most definitely want to know about this.
Little Joe stood, the blanket still clutched around his shoulders. “Is he gonna be mad at me, do you think?” he asked warily. At Hoss’s perplexed look, he said, “I gave away my new jacket and I don’t have the money for a new one, so now he has to spend money on another one—and plus, I lied to Miss Jones.”
Hoss draped his arm around the boy’s skinny shoulders. “I don’t reckon he’s gonna be too mad,” he said. Pa wouldn’t be mad at all. Well, maybe a little about the lying, but he’d likely be too busy being proud of Joe to think about that very much.
“Let’s get the buckboard hitched up,” said Hoss. “It’s gonna be colder once the sun sets.” He considered the boy for a moment and said, “Wait here.” He disappeared around the corner, into the kitchen, returning a minute later with Hop Sing’s coat. “Wear this,” he said.
Joe slipped his arms through the sleeves. He and Hop Sing were nearly the same height, but the little Chinese man was much stockier, and so the coat hung comically on the boy. Hoss winked as he rolled up the sleeves until Joe’s fingertips appeared. “You look just fine,” he said before Joe could ask.
As he opened the door, Joe said, “Hoss?” He turned back, and Joe ventured, “Can we maybe get some shoes while we’re in town?”
Hoss immediately looked down, but the boy was wearing his boots. “Why do you need shoes?”
Joe shook his head. “Not me,” he said. “Matthew’s sister—she doesn’t have any, and—well, my boots would have been way too big for her.”
Hoss had to swallow hard at that one. “Yep,” he said when the lump in his throat eased. “I reckon we can get some shoes, and probably even some other stuff.” He patted his little brother’s shoulder, his mind already busy figuring what this family might need to help them through the winter.
As he and Joe hitched up the team and headed into town, Hoss reckoned that he might need a new jacket, too, because every time he looked at the skinny kid in the Chinaman’s coat, he thought it was just possible that the buttons on his own might bust right off.