COEUR d’ALENE — When Hank Jones wanders up to his mom Amy at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds, she asks where he’s been.
“Over at the bucking chutes making sure they open right,” answers the 8-year-old.
Hank is wearing a cowboy hat that seems big for his head, cowboy boots with spurs, blue jeans, a silver belt buckle and a checked shirt with a bolo tie.
He looks like a cowboy, acts like a cowboy and as far as he’s concerned, he is a cowboy.
The redhead sits on his horse, Vivian, with the ease of someone who grew up around farm critters, which he did. His calm demeanor seems to rub off on Vivian.
Later, with little brothers Wade and Luke, he returns to the chutes and watches as the arena grounds are prepared for the North Idaho State Fair. He has the maturity of an oldest brother.
“It’s going to get dusty,” Hank says.
He’s right. As the big machines pass by, a cloud of dust rises and flows toward the Jones brothers.
They don’t flinch. They welcome dirt.
Hank explains these are the chutes where a bull will burst out of the gate, rider on its back, next weekend.
He won’t be competing this year, he says. But soon, he will.
“Next year, I can rodeo,” Hank says.
The rest of this year is out because the Athol boy will be undergoing liver transplant surgery on Sept. 7 at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Hank has biliary atresia, a rare disease of the liver and bile ducts that occurs in infants. It’s the leading cause of pediatric liver transplants.
His first surgery was at 7 weeks and now, it's time for another. This time, his mom will be donating her liver to save Hank’s life.
Amy Jones acts like it's no big deal.
“Something any mom would do,” she says.
Hank, asked what he thinks of what his mom is doing for him, doesn't say much.
"Pretty cool," he says.
Mom is not stressed about the operation, either.
“We have a strong faith in God," she says.
The Jones family — dad Ren, Amy, the three boys and the youngest, Georgia — is enjoying a pizza dinner outside the arena after working on the grounds.
Hank is feeling good, says mom.
His parents describe him as responsible, “like a 15-year-old more than an 8-year-old,” who looks after his brothers and sister.
“Anybody that meets him is like an instant friend,” his mom says.
It hasn’t been easy to get here.
Hank was fine when he was born. But at 5 weeks old, he started getting jaundice. A trip to the doctor’s office diagnosed the illness.
“And then it was surgery within three days,” Amy said.
She estimated Hank was at the hospital twice a month for his first three years on Earth.
“And then magically, for four years, we had nothing,” she said.
But this spring, he became septic and was flown to Seattle, where doctors said his liver was failing.
With the help of medication, he recovered. But that wasn't the answer.
“They really wanted to transplant Hank in June, and we asked them no because he was recovering so well and we really wanted him to have a summer and we've rodeoed all summer, probably did six rodeos, and just tried to live the best we can,” Amy said.
Hank did well, even earning his first prize money.
But rodeos will have to wait.
“They think it's best that we transplant, and I was a living donor option," Amy Jones said. "So we're going to transplant while he’s healthy."
If it's successful, Hank should be good to go.
"That is the hope. That’s the ultimate goal," dad said.
The Jones family lives on 10 acres in Athol, where they raise cattle and pigs, while both mom and dad also hold down jobs.
They bought the property six years ago. It included what they called an “extreme fixer-upper.”
“We should have burned it down,” Amy said, laughing.
The kids love it there. They pitch in with chores, as much as little kids can, and practice for the rodeo, which they also love.
“When they're not chasing the pigs or cows around trying to rope them, they’re pushing Tonka trucks all day,” says a proud Ren. “That’s what they do."
When they can, mom and dad compete, too. Ren is a team roper while Amy rides in the barrels and breakaway roping.
But not this year. This time belongs to the kids.
“We're kind of taking a back seat," Ren said.
After the Sept. 7 transplant operation, they'll have to stay in Seattle for three months to be near the hospital, living out of their camper with help from parents.
“With any luck, God willing, hopefully, we’ll be home for Christmas," Ren Jones said.
They do have health insurance, but medical costs add up quickly.
A rodeo fundraiser at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds last month helped, with many friends pitching in.
Through it all, you don't hear one word of complaint from Hank, or Amy or Ren. No wondering why. No what ifs. They just deal with it as best they can.
You won't even know Hank has health challenges and is facing a life-saving surgery. He never mentions it.
Instead, the conversation turns to a movie he loves, “Eight Seconds,” based on the life of bull rider Lane Frost.
"He watches it all the time,” his dad says.
Hank loves bull riding and bronc riding. It's fast and furious and you've got to be tough to hang in there.
The fact that he could get hurt doesn't faze him.
"I don’t care,” he says as he sits in the bucking chutes and looks out at the arena grounds.
He knows his turn is coming.