Summary: A Ponderosa fairy tale inspired by a drawing by a friend’s niece.
Word count: 1187
Once upon a time . . .
Ben Cartwright was in a dark mood.
What should have been a sweet reunion—his oldest son returning to the bosom of his family having earned not one but two Ivy League degrees with honors—had instead turned as sour as unripened grapefruit. Ben anticipated a period of adjustment as his two other sons reconnected with their older brother; he even expected a modicum of blustering as Adam reasserted his authority in matters of ranch work. What he did not expect was the antagonism between Adam and Hoss that grew larger with each passing day. The point had come where subtle discord bordered on the ultimate sin—overt disrespect.
“Joe?” he asked from the doorway of his youngest’s bedroom. When there was no answer, he turned away but stopped short of closing the door after hearing a snuffle. Picking his way over scattered mounds of toys, books, and the assorted paraphernalia common to 10-year-old boys, Ben made his way to the center of the room and waited until he caught a slight movement between the bed and the wall in what he had thought was a pile of discarded clothing.
“Front and center, young man.”
Slowly, an arm emerged pushing away the layers of clothes around it revealing a curly mop of unruly hair, but little else.
Reluctantly, Little Joe stood up and made his way to his father, head hung low. With one finger, Ben raised his son’s chin and observed the red-rimmed eyes and tear-streaked face. Removing his handkerchief from this pocket, he wiped away the smudges and then held the linen over Joe’s nose.
“Blow,” Ben said. With one hand, he cleared a space to sit on the bed and patted the mattress beside him. “Are you ready to tell me what this is all about?”
Joe shrugged his shoulders.
“Son, I’ve had enough of the behavior in this household and it needs to stop now. Don’t you agree?”
Joe nodded his head.
“What do you think we can do about it?”
“I d-dunno, Pa.”
“Has Hoss spoken to you?”
“I t-tried to get Hoss ta t-talk to me, but he w-won’t. He won’t even l-look at me. And it’s like . . . like . . . .” Just then, a loud hiccup escaped Joe’s mouth and the tears started flowing again. “L-like he don’t wanna be my brother any m-more.”
“Oh, Joe,” Ben sighed, putting his arm around his son’s shoulders and drawing him close. “Of course, he wants to be your brother. He is just feeling left out because you and Adam have been spending so much time together. He misses you, that’s all. He misses all the things you used to do together like fishing and playing checkers.”
“He won’t do nothin’ with me an’ Adam. He won’t even come to town with us to help me pick out a new hat.”
“Have you tried asking him to do something—just the two of you together? Like before?”
“Cuz I wanna spend time with Adam. I ain’t seen him in long time, Pa!”
“Haven’t seen. Yes, I know, Joe, but excluding Hoss from your activities makes him feel bad.”
“Is that why he’s been so mean?”
“He is not intentionally being mean and neither is Adam, but they are being disrespectful to each other and you know how I feel about that, don’t you.”
Joe nodded vigorously. “You don’t cotton to disrespect from any boy of yours,” he quoted, lowering his voice and putting his hands on his hips.
Ben laughed. “That’s right, son. Now, what do you think we can do to help Hoss and Adam get over their surliness?”
“You know, help them be more respectful to everyone around here.”
“Oh. Well . . . I suppose I could ask Hoss to play checkers tonight.”
“That’s a start. And what else?”
“Me and Adam could ask him to go fishin’ with us?”
“Adam and I.”
“You want to go, too, Pa?”
“No,” Ben chuckled. “I think the three of you should do this together. To, you know, get reacquainted.”
“But we already know each other, Pa!”
“What I mean, son, is that you three need to re-establish your relationship.”
“Your position hasn’t changed, Joe. You’re still the youngest. But while Adam was gone he was on his own, not having to be responsible for anyone but himself. And during that time, Hoss was the only ‘big brother’ around here. Now that Adam has returned, all that has changed; Adam is big brother once again and Hoss is middle brother.”
“And I can do stuff now that I couldn’t when Adam went away.”
“That’s right. And so can Hoss and so can Adam. So you all need to get used to each other again.”
“I get it, Pa. It’s like when we put Cotton in the corral with Sophie and Butters and he was really ornery at first but now they get along just fine.”
“That’s right, Joe. So, can you think of something else you can do to help Hoss and Adam get along ‘just fine’?”
Joe knitted his brow together and grew very serious. Then he brightened and jumped off the bed. “I know just what to do, Pa!”
“Well, that’s wonderful son. But I tell you what . . . the first thing I want you to do is clean this room.”
“Aw, Pa, nothing. Get busy young man, then you can work on your plan.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said, gathering up his laundry. “Do we have any more of that paint we used on the buggy rims?”
“Look in the store room on the lower shelf . . . after you finish your room!”
Sunday morning when Hop Sing went to gather eggs for breakfast, he found black spots dotting the yard from the barn to the house and into the house . . . his house . . . on his clean floor . . . up his clean stairs to Little Joe’s room. A Chinese rant to end all rants filled the air.
Ben, Adam and Hoss came running out of their respective bedrooms and collided at the door to Joe’s room. To their collective amazement, Little Joe was ready for church before breakfast, but their astonishment evaporated when they saw the new hat on his head.
“Joseph! What have you done?”
“What do you mean, Pa?”
“You’ve ruined Hoss’s hat!”
“No, Pa. It’s his old one. I found it in the attic and painted it black.”
“But why, son?”
“Well . . . Adam wears a black hat and he’s my oldest older brother. He was gonna help me buy a new hat. And Hoss wears a white hat and he’s my biggest older brother. He was gonna help me buy a new hat, too. And fightin’ over who was gonna take me to town was makin’ ‘em both mean—which Pa don’t like—so I thought if I had me a black sugarloaf hat it would show Adam and Hoss that I respected ‘em both as big brothers and I could keep my place as youngest and keep Pa from bein’ surly.”
And after church, they had their picture drawn to commemorate the day.
. . . And they lived happily ever after.