Word Count: 2800
His jacket casually flung over his shoulder, Adam’s steps were quick and light as he made his way from the barn to the house. He was even whistling.
“What’s got you so cheerful, brother?” Joe called out from the porch without taking his eyes from the game of checkers he was playing against Hoss.
“It’s a beautiful day.” Adam stepped up to join them. “Why wouldn’t anyone be cheerful on a day like this?” He patted Joe on the shoulder and then watched for Hoss to make his move.
But Hoss’s attention shifted away from the game to focus on Adam. “What in tarnation happened to your eye?” he said, his hand hovering above one of his checkers.
Joe swung around to see that Adam’s left eye was black, blue, and all kinds of red. It was also swollen nearly shut.
Adam shrugged. “Just a little disagreement.”
“Just a little disagreement?” Joe shot to his feet, his body tensing with rage. “That looks like a lot more than a little disagreement. Who did it, Adam?” His hands clenched into rock-hard fists.
“Calm down, Joe. Jim Dawson and I just got into a little argument. It was nothing. We even laughed about it afterward and had a few beers.”
“Adam?” Pa’s voice drew his eldest son’s attention toward the front door. “What is wrong with you?” The Cartwright patriarch appeared torn between concern and anger.
“Nothing’s wrong, Pa. It’s a beautiful day. Isn’t that enough?”
“Adam,” Pa stepped forward, his shoulders sagging in apparent despair. “This it not you, son. Not you at all.”
“He’s right, Adam,” Hoss added. “Everything you said just now, those should be Joe’s lines, not yours.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s out of character, older brother,” Joe said.
“Out of character?”
“They’re right, son.” Pa placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “You are supposed to be the logical, level-headed one. You’re not supposed to get into petty arguments and fist fights over some frivolous nonsense. That’s Joe’s job.”
“It’s not a job, Pa.” Adam shook his head, incredulous. “What has gotten into all of you?”
“Not us,” Joe said. “You. What’s gotten into you, brother?”
“Nothing. It’s just … why, you know, Joe. Everyone needs to let off a little steam now and then.”
“Not you, Adam.”
“Of course, me. Why wouldn’t I need to let off a little steam?”
“We’ve already told you, son,” Pa said in a gentle, fatherly tone. “It’s out of character. It’s your cool manner, your calm, level-headed approach, your brooding nature and your inner turmoil they want to see.”
“You know,” Hoss shrugged. “Them.”
“Brother, brother, brother.” Joe wrapped his arm around Adam’s shoulders and swung him around to look out over the expanse of the Ponderosa. Joe’s other arm swept outward in an all-encompassing gesture. “You know perfectly well that all of this is here specifically for them. All of it, the ranch, the horses, but more importantly, us.” Joe tapped his hand against his brother’s chest.
“Joe….” Adam’s brows pulled downward and his eyes narrowed. “Just who are they? Who is this ‘them’?”
“The writers, of course. And the readers. You know. Them. The fan fic folks.”
“Fan fic folks?”
“Come on, Adam,” Hoss rose slowly, concern in his gaze. “Now you’re scarin’ me. How could you forget the fan fic folks?”
Adam sighed. His shoulders sagging, he shook his head slowly. “I haven’t forgotten,” he said then, his tone one of resignation. “I just….” He sighed again. “I guess I just wanted to take a little vacation. You know, see how the other half lives.” He winked at Joe.
“What?” Joe asked, clearly confused. An instant later, he just as clearly picked up on exactly what Adam was saying. “You mean like a role-reversal, don’t you?” Smiling, Joe considered that for a moment. Then, “Nah,” he said, his brows pulling together and his lip curling in distaste. “I could never do you. I’ve got too much hot blood running through my veins.”
Adam looked to Hoss and raised an eyebrow.
Hoss looked like he had just swallowed a minnow. Whole. He curled his nose, seeming slightly ill from the experience. “Me neither,” he said then, shaking his head. “I just don’t know how I could ever wrap my head around all them books of yours.”
Sighing again, Adam turned to Pa.
“Well, don’t look at me, son. We’re already very much alike. And besides, you could never pull off my experienced wisdom, the advice I provide based on all my years on this Earth, facing all the adventures and troubles I’ve endured in my life.”
Adam draped his jacket across the back of a chair and sat down. “All right,” he surrendered. “What do you want me to do?”
Joe placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Well, older brother, it’s about that eye.”
“What about it?”
“You have to have a better explanation, something that’s going to get me all pissed off and—”
“Pissed off?” Adam said. “What do you mean by ‘pissed off’?”
“Riled. Mad. Angry.”
“Then why not just say ‘riled,’ ‘mad,’ or ‘angry’?”
“I’m trying to get with the times, brother. I figure our dialogue has been getting a little old fashioned.”
“There is nothing old fashioned,” Pa said authoritatively, “about properly speaking the English language.”
“What about Hoss?” Joe asked. “He doesn’t use proper English.”
“I ain’t got to,” Hoss said.
“That’s not what Freyakendra’s mother would say,” Joe pointed out.
“Who?” Hoss asked.
Joe rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on, Hoss. You know her. She’s the one who had all three of you worried to high Heaven because you thought I was dead or dying in that fic she wrote, you know, ‘Beyond the Ballad.’”
“Oh,” Hoss chewed his lip, clearly not relishing the memory. “Yeah. Sorry, ma’am,” he said, looking up at nothing. “I guess I didn’t recognize you.”
“You didn’t want to recognize her is more like it,” Joe said. “Although I don’t know why, since I was the one doing all the real suffering.”
“Don’t you give me that,” Hoss complained. “You were too out of your head to even know you were sufferin’. And besides that, we suffered plenty by watching your sufferin’.”
Joe patted him on the back. “I know you did. And I was touched, brother. I really was.”
“Yeah, you’re touched all right,” Hoss grumbled.
“Boys!” Pa shouted. “That’s enough! We’ve gotten too far off track here. Now, where were we?”
“Dialogue,” Adam answered.
“That’s right,” Joe confirmed. “Hoss said he ain’t got to speak proper English. And I was trying to say he shouldn’t say ain’t all the time. It sets a bad example.”
“For who?” Hoss asked.
“Whom,” Adam corrected.
“For kids,” Joe answered. “Kids like Freyakendra. She used to say ‘ain’t’ on account of the fact we say it all the time. But her mother was always telling her ‘ain’t fell in the paint so it ain’t no word!’”
Hoss smiled. “Hey, I kind’a like that!” An instant later, he was puzzled. “Freyakendra’s a kid?” he asked, confused. “I thought she was a growed woman.”
“She is,” Joe said. “A woman, that is. But she was a kid back when we were first on the air.”
“In the air? You mean like a bird?”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Don’t be so thick. You know what I mean. On the air, as in on TV. Television. That big box with rabbit ears people used to sit around and watch at night.”
“Antennas! Come on, Hoss! Stop messing with everything I’m sayin’!”
“Uh, Joe?” Adam said.
Joe turned back to his oldest brother.
“TV’s aren’t big boxes anymore. And they don’t need rabbit ears or antennas. In fact, from an engineering standpoint I find the latest plasma screen TVs pretty fascinating. I’m thinking about getting one for myself.”
“Doggone it, Adam!” Joe complained. “Don’t you go messin’ with me, too! You know you can’t get a plasma screen TV! It wouldn’t be, you know, historically accurate.”
Adam raised both eyebrows. “I hate to tell you this, little brother, but there are a lot of things around here that are not exactly historically accurate.”
“They’re a lot more accurate than plasma screen TVs! Besides, if I can’t get an iPhone, you can’t get a plasma screen TV!”
“Boys!” Pa shouted. “Stop all this nonsense talk about things that don’t even exist!”
“Hey, Pa?” Hoss called out. “Can’t I say ain’t no more?”
“Of course, Hoss!” Pa shouted even louder than before. He pointed a scolding finger to his middle son. “You must say ‘ain’t’ in order to stay in character. And Joseph,” Pa said, aiming that finger at Joe now. “You must not use contemporary slang like ‘pissed off’ because that would be out of both character and setting.”
Pa took a deep breath, and then turned slowly toward Adam. “As for you, son, you are not to start acting like Little Joe. Do you hear me?”
Adam glanced at Joe and shrugged. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t. After all, he gets a lot more girls than I do.”
Joe’s bottom lip started quivering. “B-but, Adam….” He sounded truly forlorn. “Th-they all die on me. It’s horrible!” A tear spilled down his cheek.
“Yeah, well,” Hoss said, pursing his lips. “I reckon I got a much better reason why Adam shouldn’t go actin’ like Little Joe.”
“What reason is that?” Adam asked.
“Ain’t you seen all that hurt those fan fic folks like to put him through? You really want to get shot, stabbed, beat up, hog tied and have pneumonia all at once, like Joe does when folks like Lisamarie and Southplains get a hold a’ him?”
“Don’t forget Freyakendra, Hoss,” Pa said. “After all, she did send Joe to Purgatory.”
“Not really, Pa,” Hoss corrected. “She just made him think that’s where he was.”
“Yes.” Pa said coldly. “It was utterly shameful, the way she made Little Joe wish he could die. Utterly, utterly shameful.”
“Southplains did worse,” Hoss challenged. “It wasn’t just wishin’ with her. She sent Joe straight to Heaven in that Heroes story of hers, ‘least for a minute. How else could he a’ had a chat with his ma?”
“So Southplains sent him to Heaven,” Adam said, “and Freyakendra made him wish he could die. Big deal. Lisamarie beat the tar out of him and then made him pull the trigger on himself!”
“You do not need to remind me of what Lisamarie did!” Pa said angrily. “I still have nightmares about that Forged of Fire story of hers!”
“Y-you have nightmares?” Joe asked, looking mighty pale.
“My point is,” Adam said then, “we should be thankful for stories like the ones those ladies write. Joe himself said that’s why we’re here. Joe, you should be particularly thankful for fan fic folks like Southplains and Lisamarie. Those ladies add a great deal of finesse to the way they make you suffer. They don’t just arbitrarily select a whole bunch of wounds and illnesses from that checklist of theirs, and make it look like Joe was thrown in the blender—”
“Tsk, tsk, Adam!” Pa scolded. “What did I say about things that don’t exist?”
“Th-they have a checklist?” Joe was looking worse by the minute.
“We are dealing with people who do live among things like blenders, Pa,” Adam said, ignoring Joe’s ever-sickening expression. “Sometimes, for their sake, we do need to speak their own language. What I’m trying to say is at least they don’t do Blender Joe stories. They have more class than that. They’re more into Timex Joe.”
“T-timex Joe?” Joe was starting to look a bit like he’d swallowed Hoss’s minnow while standing in the path of a stampede of buffalos ridden by Indians taking aim with both arrows and rifles.
“You take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.” Adam winked. “Those ladies might do two or three things to you, maybe four on a good day, but they won’t throw the whole gamut at you all at once.”
Hoss grinned. “You mean they’ll do the combo platter, but not the all you can eat buffet.”
Adam grinned right back at him. “Yeah. Like that.”
“So,” Hoss said, “ain’t that still a good reason for you not to act like Joe?”
Adam’s grin died. “Yeah,” he admitted, drawing out the word into one extra long syllable. “I suppose it is a good reason at that.”
“Good,” Pa said.
“Good, what?” Joe asked.
“Good, Adam won’t start acting like Joe, Hoss won’t stop saying ain’t, and you, young man, will not start talking like it’s the twenty-first century. The moment any of you does these things it will turn into complete anarchy around here. And then where would we be?”
“TV Land?” Joe suggested.
Pa glared at him. “Now,” Pa went on, “since it appears I am the only one who still happens to have some wits about him, I suppose it’s up to me to get us back to where we belong. Adam, it started with that black eye of yours. You must be more Adam-like about the whole thing, from the explanation itself to your response. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Adam sighed heavily. “Yes, Pa. I understand.”
Pa nodded. “No whistling. No cheerful spirits.”
“That’s right, Adam,” Joe concurred. “Your little disagreement with Jim Dawson has to have an edge to it, like … maybe like you were defending someone.”
“Yeah,” Hoss smiled. “Like you were defending a lady’s honor, like one of them knights of the round table.”
“No, no, no,” Pa disagreed. “We don’t want to confuse any of the fan fic folk who like to remember that you, yourself were the errant knight. And besides, it could come off as too much of a Mary Sue.”
Joe smiled. “Hey! I know Mary Sue! She’s that hot chick down at—”
“Joseph! Mind your language! I told you to stay with this century!”
Joe bowed his head, sheepishly. “Yes, Pa.”
“Now,” Pa went on, rubbing his chin in consideration. “I think it would be much better, Adam, if you were defending one of us.” He pointed a finger into the air.
Adam nodded. “Joe,” he decided instantly.
“Me?” Joe’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yes. You. I was defending you. Freyakendra, Lisamarie and Southplains would all like that. So would all the various and sundry JAM, SJS and SAS advocates out there.”
“Very well.” Pa nodded. “Jim Dawson said something against Joe, and you stood up for him.”
“Hey, I got it!” Joe sounded excited. “Jim Dawson could be one of the Dawson gang. That would add a whole ‘nother dimension to the story.”
Adam nodded again. “That’s right. And you stole his girl.”
Joe turned serious. “Only I didn’t steal her. I just encouraged her to recognize he was no good. She deserved better.”
“Someone like you, of course.” Adam rolled his eyes,
“So,” Pa said. “Do we all have the story straight now?”
“Yes, Pa,” Adam said.
“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss said.
“Absolutely!” Joe grinned.
“Jim Dawson lost his girl to Joe,” Pa said, still holding up that one finger. Next, he held up a second finger. “He saw Adam at the Bucket of Blood and picked a fight.” Pa held up a third finger. “Adam won the fight, but the war has only just begun. Now the Dawson gang is out for blood, and all of us, but particularly Joe and Adam,” Pa held up his last finger and finally his thumb, “are directly in their line of fire.”
“That sounds like the story, all right,” Hoss said.
“Yes,” Adam sighed. “That would be the story.”
“I can feel my blood boiling already!” Joe added with that impetuous grin of his.
Adam shook his head, giving his youngest brother a lop-sided smile. “Just don’t spill any of it too soon, Joe. I get mine first, and then you get yours.”
Joe winked at him.
“Very well,” Pa said, seeming none too pleased. “Now, let’s start over, from the very beginning. Adam, get back on your horse. Don’t bother to stable him this time, because you’re in too much of a hurry to warn us all about the Dawson gang.”
A few moments later, Adam rode up to the house at a gallop.
“Pa!” he called out. “Joe!”
He jumped from his horse, stumbling when he hit the ground.
“Adam!” Pa cried out in concern.
“It’s the Dawson gang, Pa,” Adam said, breathlessly. “They’re….”
Adam’s words died away as he passed out, falling into Hoss’s arms….