Word Count: 11,500
A very snowy Wednesday evening, 8:15 p.m., February 2, 1859
Twenty-eight-year-old Adam Cartwright smiled to himself as he readied a tray of warm cocoa and cookies for his brothers and Pa. The blizzard had raged for the last three days and the four of them were really getting on each others’ nerves. The disagreements had started out good natured enough on Monday morning when the heavy snow first started to fall. However, things rapidly went downhill from there. Those ‘good natured disagreements’ became heated discussions, then progressed to loud arguments and finally culminated in one of the worst knock-down, drag-out battles at the supper table this evening that the eldest Cartwright son could ever remember. His Pa’s solution? Neutral corners for the duration of the evening. Adam’s solution? Stir up a few pleasant and maybe not so pleasant memories of a night like this almost twelve years ago. “Now for the final touch.” He placed a small Chinese lacquer box on the dragon tray that held the refreshments, picked it up and headed off to rejoin the rest of his family.
Adam chuckled to himself as he entered the great room and looked around. Neutral corners? His family members couldn’t have been further apart from each other and still be in the same room. His father was sitting at the desk in the alcove, smoking his pipe and pretending to go over some paperwork. His middle brother was at the dining table also pretending to fix a harness that Adam knew he had fixed earlier in the day and his baby brother was lying on the top of the stair landing pretending to read – of all things — the Bible? Adam chuckled again and shook his head. Who did they think they’re kidding? He thought walking to the sturdy pier table in front of the fireplace and putting the tray with the cocoa and cookies down on it.
Not unpredictably, his twenty-two year old brother Eric, nicknamed Hoss, was the first to react to the smell emanating from the hot chocolate. He stuck his nose in the air and sniffed noisily like a hound dog. “Hey, what ya got there, Adam?” he called getting to his feet and strolled slowly toward his older sibling.
Next to respond was the occupant of the landing. Sixteen and a half year old Joseph, alias Little Joe, took a deep whiff and slowly let it out. The expression on his handsome face told his big brother Adam that it worked. Joe jumped to his feet, took another deep breath and tried to casually walk down the stairs to investigate.
Their father Benjamin, known far and wide as Ben, finally looked up and saw that his three sons were congregating near the fire despite his ‘neutral corners’ edict, sighed and closed his ledger. He figured, why not? If all it took to mend the rift and reestablish peace in the household was a little refreshment, how could he not participate?
“I thought we could all use something tonight, especially since it’s kinda special,” Adam smiled cryptically, folded his arms over his chest and looked at each of his relatives.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, big brother, but I know you’ll tell us, whether we want to know or not,” Joe grinned, sat down on the corner of the low table and began to pour the hot liquid into the four cups that were sitting on the tray. “You know, I haven’t had hot chocolate since…” he paused trying to remember, “Well, I know it’s been at least 3 years, any way…”
“No doubt when your whiskers began to grow,” Adam teased, ruffling his little brother’s hair and sat down on the hearth.
“What whiskers?” Hoss swiped his hand across the side of Joe’s baby face and laughing heartily sat down next to Adam.
“Careful, you big galoot! You’ll make me spill it!” Joe growled playfully, grinned and handed Hoss a cup of the hot steaming liquid.
“Hey, Adam,” Hoss spied the lacquer box sitting on the tray, reached over and picked it up. “What’s this?”
In response, Adam merely said, “Open it.”
Hoss did and was slightly taken aback. “Are these what I think they are?” He pulled out a small red envelope.
“What’s this all about, Adam?” Ben looked suspiciously at his oldest son as he sat down in his favorite red leather chair.
“Oh, I think you know.” His oldest son smiled cryptically again, pulled something red out of his shirt and, leaning forward, put it on his youngest son’s head.
“Oh, no,” Hoss chuckled, shaking his head at the memory. “Is it that time of year again?”
“Well, it’s been twelve years more or less since we…er…celebrated it,” Adam smirked glancing at his father to see if he was smiling. Fortunately he was.
“What are we all talking about?” Joe was mystified and even more so when he pulled off whatever it was that Adam had placed on his head and looked at it.
Ben laughed as Adam winked at him and held up a worn black reference book that Ben instantly recognized. “You were too little to remember much about that, Joseph, but I remember it like it was yesterday.” He shook his head and took a sip. “Oh, boy, do I!”
A very snowy Saturday afternoon, February 13, 1847*
“Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa!”
Ben knew the identity of the very excited little ‘Pa’-sayer before he caught sight of him and set down his newspaper in preparation for his entrance. He braced himself in his red leather chair as all thirty-five exuberant pounds of his youngest son Joseph, four and a half year old, landed on top of him. Ben’s wind was temporarily knocked out of him from the impact of the tiny human cannonball but Joe didn’t miss a beat, continuing his excited…
“Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa!”
…until his father put his hand over his mouth to stop the steady stream of “Pa!” ’s and held his little boy tightly against him until his squirming stopped, hopefully sooner than later.
“Did you want something, Joseph?”
Little Joe’s thickly lashed innocent green eyes instantly met his father’s twinkling dark brown eyes. He really “did” and began to nod his head so fast to communicate this “want” that his father laughed, thinking his head might fall off if it wasn’t for his hand.
“Okay, son,” Ben sobered appropriately. “As soon as you calm down, I’ll take my hand away.”
Joe kept nodding but a little slower, catching on to what his father was telling him. About half a minute passed as Ben waited for Joe’s nodding to slow even more.
“Are you ready yet?” his father smiled patiently down at him.
Joe gulped, nodded once and stopped nodding.
“Okay,” Ben slowly removed his hand. “What is it?”
The little boy took a deep breath and let it fly. “Oh, Pa, kin we have Hop Sing’s New Year’s? Can we, Pa, pleaz, oh, kin we, pleaz, kin we? Adam says it’s tomorrow night and it’s the Goat Year and ‘cause we’re snowed in and all, it’ll be fun. Oh, pleas, Pa, oh, pleas. It ain’t no trouble, Pa, oh, pleas, oh, pleas, oh, pleas? Me and Hoss and Adam will do ev’rythin’ so you won’t have ta. Pleaz, pleaz, pleaz, pleaz? Adam’s made some stuff and Hoss got some things too. Oh, pleaz, Pa, pleaz, pleaz, pleaz, pleaz…”
Completely overwhelmed by his little boy’s words, Ben clapped his hand back over Joe’s mouth again, turned slightly in the chair, cleared his throat noisily and yelled into the kitchen, “Adam!!! Hoss!!! Come in here right now and tell me what Little Joe’s jabbering about!!!”
“Yes, Pa?” sixteen year old Adam asked innocently drying his hands on a towel while he moved to stand in front of Ben and Joe. He had been tackling the lunchtime dishes.
Ten year old Hoss, a broom in his hand, followed his older brother and lined up beside him.
“Boys, what’s this about Hop Sing’s New Year?” Ben thought he’d cut to the chase.
Adam looked at Hoss who was looking out the window. He guessed he was elected as the spokesman by default again. “I was just trying to get Joe to help us do some cleaning, Pa. You know, Hop Sing always has the house cleaned up before he goes off to stay with his relatives for the New Year’s celebration. I guess it gave him the idea …”
“But Joseph mentioned ‘the stuff’ you have and Hoss’ ‘things.’ What’s that all about?’ Ben looked skeptically at his eldest then at his youngest, wondering if this was indeed his youngest’s idea.
Little Joe tried to communicate with his eyes that he really wanted his Pa to release his mouth but this time, his “want” was not recognized by his father.
“Now, Pa,” Adam the Advocate emerged, “What’s it gonna hurt if we celebrate Chinese New Year any way? It would be educational for us all and fun for Little Joe. Look,” he moved to pick up a book that he had left lying open on the table behind the divan and placed it open on Joe’s lap. “I found out a lot about it from books you had in the attic and we’re snowed in so why not do something different? Anyway, it will keep Joe B-U-S-Y and out of T-R-O-U-B-L-E especially since he…um…you know.”
Ben caught the drift of Adam’s “you know.” Just this morning, Little Joe once again was whining about the absence of his mother Marie and wondered when she was coming home. After much encouragement from her husband, Marie had joined Hop Sing on his annual trek to be with his San Francisco relatives for the month long New Year celebration during the first good stretch of weather after January 1. It was her husband’s opinion that she really needed to get away “for all of their sakes” and their good friends, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, conveniently were leaving for San Francisco at the same time. Thus, with Hop Sing and the Stewarts watching out for her, Ben was positive that his beloved Marie would be well taken care of on the journey. He himself missed her companionship immensely but he hated to admit that he really missed her when it came to dealing with Joseph. In fact, to get her to go, he had been emphatic that taking care of their “dear baby son” would be no problem since he raised Adam and Hoss without a whole lot of “female coddling.” However, his “dear baby son” was proving to be quite a challenge for the Cartwrights who were left behind.
Suddenly Ben realized that he still had his hand over his “dear baby son’s” mouth. He planted a kiss on the top of Joe’s curls, removed his hand and picked up Adam’s book from Joe’s lap.
Amazingly, at least to Adam and Hoss, the little boy decided it was in his best interest not to say a word, even though he now could, and sat perfectly still on his Pa’s knees.
“Hmmm,” Ben looked down at the book. Obviously Adam had been prepared for his inquiry and had crafted a pretty persuasive argument, especially the part that he spelled so his youngest would be none the wiser as to the elder Cartwrights’ real motivation for the celebration.
Ben closed the book using his thumb to mark the page and sank back in his chair to consider the matter. He looked from one son to another to another.
All three sons held their breath waiting for the question that one out of the three of them knew was coming: “And who is going to be responsible for anything that goes wrong?”
“What could possibly go wrong, Pa?” the ‘one out of three’ smiled at his father. The look Ben gave him quickly caused him to sigh and spit out that he “would be responsible if anything went wrong,” but he “couldn’t imagine what could.”
“Well, I suppose we could do a little something,” Ben finally gave in.
“Does that mean that we’re gonna follow all of the customs and stuff, Pa?” Hoss looked at him hopefully.
Ben glanced at his middle son a bit suspiciously. It seemed like he also had been doing his research for this presentation. “What kind of ‘customs and stuff’ are we talking about?”
“Oh, not much,” Adam quickly stepped in front of Hoss to respond, “Cleaning, putting up a few paper doodads, getting some special food together, making some noise at midnight…pretty much like regular New Year’s except the Chinese also have to show special respect for their relatives especially their older ones during that time.” He watched his father’s eyes light up momentarily at this last part.
“Well, I guess that would be fine…” Ben smiled.
“So that’s a “yes,” Pa?” Hoss interrupted peeking out from behind his brother.
Again, Hoss’ question set off bells and whistles in Ben’s head. Hmmm, Ben studied both of his older offspring warily. Something’s rotten in Denmark. What was he missing here?
“It’s a ‘yes,’ Hoss, but,” the smile faded from the eldest Cartwright’s face, “Let me make it clear that we’re only talking two days, tomorrow and Monday…no, fifteen day affair! Is that clear?” He looked pointed at Hoss and Adam.
“Yes, sir, Pa,” both Hoss and Adam nodded.
“And I still expect snow to be shoveled and wood to be chopped and everything else that has to be done done. Understand?”
“Yes, sir, Pa,” again both Hoss and Adam nodded.
“Okay, now, Joseph.” He fixed his gaze on Joe who was still quietly sitting on his lap, not saying a word. “Didn’t you say something about cleaning?”
“Yes.” The little boy thought he’d keep any response short lest his father’s hand find his mouth again.
“Well, I guess you best get back to it, don’t you think?” Ben smirked at his youngest. “Else we won’t be ready for Hop Sing’s New Year, will we?”
“Hooray!” Little Joe jumped off Ben’s lap and headed for the kitchen.
“Thanks, Pa.” Adam smiled and started to turn to follow Hoss, broom in hand, who was following their little brother.
“Er, Adam?” Ben held the book out for Adam to take it. “Isn’t Valentine’s Day tomorrow?”
“Well, Pa,” Adam tucked the volume under his arm, “I thought maybe since our family’s special Valentine is with Hop Sing in San Francisco, it would be easier not to mention it so Joe…well, you know. Anyway, Valentine’s Day’s not for four men to celebrate alone. It’s just, how did you say it?” Adam’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Female coddling?”
“Female coddling, eh?” Ben smirked slightly at his son and crossed his arms over his chest. “Okay, Adam, just remember what I said.” He picked up his newspaper again.
“This will work out, Pa. Just you wait and see.” Adam grinned and, feeling very pleased with himself, strutted into the kitchen, unaware that his father was watching his departure.
Now Ben was certain something was up. Oh well, he thought to himself. He agreed to this so he deserved whatever happened. This one goes down in the plus column, Lord. He looked up to heaven and then went back to his reading.
“What did he say?” Hoss ambushed his older brother before he was all the way in the kitchen.
Adam smirked at his blond haired sibling. “Oh, he remembered it was Valentine’s Day, that’s all.” He nonchalantly put the book down on the table.
“But, Adam, what happens if Pa won’t give us the money to pay the Browns?” Hoss’ concern was evident in his big blue eyes.
“Don’t worry so much,” Adam clapped his brother on the back. “I’ve got it all worked out.”
“Well, you’re not gonna get punched in the nose by Horace Brown if we don’t git that money.”
“Listen, Hoss. All we have to do is get Joe to be his cute little self. And by the time we’re finished with Pa, he’ll probably give us double the money we need.”
“I don’t know. I’m just afraid…”
Adam sighed deeply. “This will work out, Hoss. Just you wait and see!” He uttered the same words to Hoss that he had just uttered to their father.
“Well,” Hoss began to sweep again, “I just hope he doesn’t give us double of something else.”
Adam laughed, slapped his younger brother’s back and went back to the dishes. He glanced over at his littlest brother who was carefully dusting the lower shelves. Yep, just as long as Joe’s his cute little self, we’ll be fine.
If only the dishwasher and the sweeper had let the little duster in on all of their plans from the beginning, things might have turned out a little different.
More snow, Sunday morning, February 14, 1847, Chinese New Year’s Eve
Ben rolled over in his bed, opened one of his blurry eyes and looked out the window at what there was of the early morning light. Still snowing, he thought as he closed that eye and turned over on his back. He really loved the Ponderosa but some times of the year, he would have traded it all for a nice little tropical island with warm sea water, plenty of fresh fruit not to mention rum and soft gentle breezes. He rolled over on his left side, pulled the covers more tightly around him and snuggled deeper into his bed, ready to drift off to pursue such a dream.
However, a soft sigh coming from somewhere in front of his face brought him back to life. Cautiously he opened the same blurry eye. What he saw caused him to close it again. Then he opened it again. Then he opened the other one. There in front of him stood his two younger sons dressed in their normal clothes but wearing red silk hats like Hop Sing’s black one. Must be what Joe was babbling about yesterday. He noted with amusement that Little Joe’s brown curls, his ears and most of his eyebrows were completely covered by his hat.
Hoss‘ fit a bit better over his straight blond hair but that wasn’t saying much. He was holding a tray decorated with Chinese dragons. Ben noticed that the tea cup was setting slightly out of kilter on its saucer and a small plate with some toast slathered with butter and jam sat beside it.
“Good mornin’, Horrible Father.” Joe bowed low causing Hop Sing’s hat to slip over his eyes.
Ben jerked himself awake at his youngest’s salutation. “What did you say?”
Hoss gulped. “He means Honorable Father, Honorable Father.” He likewise bent low with the tea tray. As Ben foresaw, the tray tilted forward when Hoss bowed and the dishes started to slide forward toward the edge. Thinking fast, Ben reached out with both hands and snatched up the tea cup-saucer combination and the plate without losing any tea or toast. He set them on his bedside table.
“Would Horrible Father like a bath?” Joe was still bent over his hat covering his eyes.
“Honorable, not Horrible,” Hoss whispered out of the side of his mouth to his baby brother.
Ben laughed. “‘Pa’ will do just fine, Joseph.” He adjusted his little boy’s hat so it was sitting back on his head and he could see again. “And I’m not sure if I want to take a bath today. Maybe tomor…”
“But, Honorable Father, Number One Son said you’ve got ta today ‘cause you can’t tomorrow.” Hoss picked up the tea cup from the table and handed it to Ben and bowed again. “Please drink this while it’s warm, Honorable Father.”
“Why can’t I take a bath tomorrow, Number Two Son?” Ben thought the least he could do was to play along with his boys. He took a sip of the tea and recognized it as Keemun, one his favorite teas for breakfast.
Before Hoss could answer Joe did. “’Cause it’ll wash all the luck away, Horrib…um…Pa,” he explained patiently.
“Then I imagine that you both have to take baths today too, then.” Ben took another sip but watched the two’s reactions to his statement over the rim of the cup. He was not disappointed when the words “I don’t want…” fell out of his youngest’s mouth before his middle son smothered the rest of the protest with his hand.
“Yes, sir, Honorable Father.” Hoss nodded and caused Joe’s head to nod too.
None too happy with his bigger brother condemning him to a dreaded ‘bath,’ Joe glared up at Hoss, bit his finger to get him to release him and stepped on his toe. “I don’t want no bath!” He finally managed to spit out what he previously wanted to say. He then turned and ran from the room as fast as his little legs could carry him.
“Doggone it, Little Joe! You come back …!” Hoss started to run after his baby brother, fratricide on his mind, but Ben grabbed him by the seat of the pants to stop him.
“That’s okay, son,” Ben laughed and pulled a fuming Hoss down to sit on the bed beside him. “We’ll get him in the tub this afternoon then we’ll all take a nap so we can stay up for midnight. In the meantime,” he swung his legs out of bed so he was sitting beside his son, “now, what were you saying about a bath for your Honorable Father?” He grabbed his robe, stood up, pulled it on and tied it.
“It’s all ready right now, Pa.” Hoss smiled up at his Pa, jumped off the bed and gave Ben a low bow. He then picked up the dragon tray but not before Ben grabbed up a piece of the toast and the tea cup.
“Lead on then, Number Two Son.” He waved the toast like a Chinese emperor. “I’m right behind you.”
“Yes, sir, Honorable Father.” Hoss grinned and scooted past his father and out the door.
“Well, at least we’ll all be clean.” Ben took a bite of toast as he followed Hoss out in the hall and down the stairs.
Flurries, Sunday afternoon, February 14, 1847, Chinese New Year’s Eve
Four and a half year old Joe lay on his stomach on his bed and frowned at the picture of the pie-bald Indian pony on his wall. He was supposed to be taking a nap like everyone else was and resting up for tonight. But how could he sleep after what Adam had told them at lunch? Joe rolled over on his side and looked out the window. It had stopped snowing really hard an hour or so ago and the sun was shining through the few stray snowflakes that were still falling. He sighed a little sigh and went back to looking at the picture on the wall again.
Adam had said that a long time ago in China, where Hop Sing came from, a real big bad beast named Nian would sneak into people’s houses on New Year’s Eve and be real mean to them and their animals. The people got tired of Nian being mean to them and finally figured out that Nian was a’scared of anything loud. He didn’t like red either ‘cause it would scare him, too. So Adam said they all had to wear something red and to make lots of noise at midnight to make sure Nian would go away and they would have good luck for the New Year. Now, Adam was pretty smart but Little Joe had some doubt that any beast from China would find them at the Ponderosa. Just in case, though, Joe told his family that he would “make a lot of noise for sure.” The more he laid there and thought about it, however, the more he had to admit to himself that he was just a little afraid of the beast part. ‘Course if Pa and Adam and Hoss were there, he knew he would be okay. However, he couldn’t help but worry about Guillermo and Nana, their two baby Spanish goats. After all, Adam had said it was “their year.” Adam didn’t exactly ‘xplain what that meant but the little boy figured that it meant the big bad Nian was going to come after them and be mean to them. That he didn’t want. He had to think of something to save them.
“Hmmmmm,” he picked up his little stuffed bear, “that bad Nian kin’t git ‘em if they’re with us. What’d ya think?” He held the stuffed animal to his ear, listening carefully. “Okay. We’ll go ask Hoss.”
Tucking his bear under his arm, Little Joe carefully climbed down from the bed and tiptoed across the floor and out the door into the hall. He held his breath as he passed his father’s room, noting as he traveled by that his father had managed to fall asleep.
“Nothin’ scares Pa,” Joe told his toy. He then silently moved down the hall, stopped in front of Hoss’ door and peeked in. “No Hoss,” he whispered to the toy. “Now where kin he…?” He repeated the process of putting the little stuffed bear to his ear. “Adam, huh? Okay, I hope ya know what yur talkin’ ‘bout.” He headed toward his oldest brother’s room at the end of the hall, again on tiptoes.
The door to Adam’s room was open and Hoss and he were sitting on Adam’s bed, a long low wooden box and a lot of funny looking thingys sitting between them. Both had changed into red shirts. Joe almost ran in to interrupt them but reminded himself that he had to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake up his Pa. He listened for a minute or so trying to decide what to do when he overheard the word “fireworks.”
“What’s that?” Joe raised his eyebrows quizzically at the stuffed animal. He smiled to himself impishly as he dropped to the floor on his hands and knees and crawled on his belly into his big brother’s room and under his bed. Now he could really hear them.
“…maybe just a few tonight…then we can fire up the rest gradually over time,” Adam was patiently and softly making his point to his younger brother.
“But, Adam…” Hoss whined picking up a string of red firecrackers and looking at it reverently.
“Listen, we’re going to have a tough enough time explaining to Pa where we got a couple, let alone all these,” Adam swept his arm over all of the assorted pyrotechnics that sat between them. For two dollars, a real bargain price, Hoss’ friends had sold them the whole kit and caboodle. Of course, the Brown brothers were under some duress since their Pa promised them a good lesson if he found those firecrackers in his house when they returned from church. They had even extended credit to the two older Cartwright boys so they could finance their purchase but time was running out.
“But, Adam…” Hoss whined again, his big blue eyes pleading with his sixteen year old brother.
“Come on, Hoss. You know how Pa feels about these things. He’s gonna skin us alive if he sees us with all these,” Adam attempted to reason with his brother. “It’s amazing that we got them back from town at all without Pa or Ma or Joe finding out about them.” He sighed deeply. “But I think our luck is running out. We’ve got to find a better place to hide them. And we have to do it right now before Pa wakes up.”
“I guess yur right.” Hoss reluctantly put the string of firecrackers down.
Little Joe’s ears perked up. Even at four and one half, he realized that he had a chip to play against his older siblings to get them to help save Guillermo and Nana. “We think Adam’s right too.” The little boy decided that now was the perfect time to make his and his bear’s presence known to his brothers and popped up beside Adam from under the bed.
Adam swore, grabbed his little brother and put his hand over his mouth.
“Shhhhhhh,” he hissed down at him. “You’ll wake up Pa. Now, I’ll let you go if you promise to be quiet. Okay?”
Joe nodded his head in agreement.
“Good, I…,” Adam put him on the bed beside him and released his mouth.
As soon as Adam’s hand was gone, Joe blurted out, “You ain’t supposed ta swear, Adam, and what’s those for?” He pointed to the assorted firecrackers, skyrockets, smoke bombs and the like with his stuffed toy.
“Now what’ll we do?” Hoss looked in a panicky sort of way at Adam.
Adam took a deep breath and tried to think. Now what’ll we do?
“You kin help me bring Guillermo and Nana in so Nian don’t get ‘em, that’s what.” Joe smiled happily and reached for a little round ball with a fuse stuck in it but Adam quickly smacked his hand away…
“Ouch! I…” Little Joe squealed.
…and gave him a look that stopped any further words from coming out of his mouth.
“We ain’t bringin’ no goats in the house!” Hoss told Joe softly but emphatically, shaking his finger at him for good measure.
“But, Adam says it’s their year,” Joe started to snivel. “That bad old Nian’s gonna hurt ‘em.” He looked like he was about to cry. “And ‘sides, they’re just babies!”
Adam rolled his eyes. “The Year of the Goat.” He should have expected this but the best laid plans…
“So…it’s Guillermo and Nana’s year for Nian to git ‘em,” the little boy reasoned.
“Listen, Joe, we said no!” Hoss stood up and glared down him.
“And I said yes!” Joe insisted, crawling off the bed backwards and turning to confront his middle brother.
“Well, we’ll tell Pa that you wasn’t takin’ yur nap and you were listenin’ in on a private conversation and he’ll give you a spankin’ for durn sure.” Hoss, hands on hips, tried to intimidate his baby brother.
“And I’ll tell Pa ‘bout all them fiery-things and yu’ll get a worser spankin’, so there!” four and a half year old Joe was not intimidated by his bigger sibling. He stood toe to toe with Hoss.
“Hold it.” Adam snagged his baby brother around his waist and set him on his lap. “We’re running out of time. Listen, we’ll put the goats in the storeroom for you, Little Joe, but you’ve got to swear you won’t tell Pa about anything. Deal?” He offered his hand to Joe.
Joe looked at his hand skeptically, then at Hoss, who nodded encouragingly at him, and then back at Adam’s hand.
Little Joe rolled his eyes. “I ain’t supposed ta swear and you ain’t allowed either, Adam,” he told his oldest brother. “Pa’ll get mad and well, you know,” Adam chuckled at Joe. He was referring to the earlier expletive he uttered. “You’re right. We’re both not allowed to swear. Do you promise not to tell Pa anything?”
“Okay.” Joe put his little hand in Adam’s larger one.
“Good.” Adam shook it once, grabbed Little Joe around the waist and boosted him up on his shoulders. He picked up the bear that Joe had left on the bed and handed it to the little boy. “Now hang on tight.”
Hoss hurriedly packed the fireworks back into the low flat crate and picked it up. “Ready, Adam.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Adam readjusted Joe’s position on his back as he and Hoss tiptoed out into the hall.
“Kin I be the look-out, Adam?” Joe leaned forward and whispered in his brother’s ear.
“Sure.” Adam would agree to anything to keep the little boy quiet since they had just reached Ben’s open door.
All noted that their father was still lying across his bed, his chest rising and falling, indicating a deep sleep. Ever so quietly they slipped by and made it to the top of the stairs.
“Adam?” Joe again whispered.
“Yes?” Adam said patiently.
“What’s a look-out do, anyway, Adam?”
Adam stopped in his tracks and gaped back at his little brother in disbelief. “We’ll let you know, Joe,” he finally sighed and started down the stairs, all the while wondering how in the world his simple little scheme to get money to pay the Brown brothers for their stash of pyrotechnics could get so complicated.
As it turned out, Joe proved to be quite useful as a ‘lookout.’ Amazingly to Adam, at least, the four and a half year old did exactly what Adam said to do: he sat himself down dutifully on the bottom step, his bear in his lap, and listened intently for any sound from upstairs. Adam also told him that if Pa started to get up and his older brothers were not inside, then he had to go up and keep Pa busy until they came back in. And last of all, Adam told him he wasn’t to touch “them fiery things” that they were leaving on the table or he would tell Pa everything and they all would get a real good spankin’. At this last part, Joe really paid attention.
Good fortune was smiling on the Cartwright boys since it only took ten minutes for Hoss and Adam to make their way out to the barn along the snowy path, corral Guillermo and Nana and carry them back into the house. They quickly shoved the two little kids into the storage room and closed the door. Before they could congratulate themselves, however, their cute little “look-out” heard their father’s feet hit the floor.
“Look out!” Joe shouted running toward his brothers, waving his arms and his bear frantically.
Hoss and Adam looked at each in horror. Oh-oh! The illicit fireworks were still sitting in plain sight on the pier table beside the fireplace.
Adam thought fast, picked up the crate and shoved it under Pa’s chair, and grabbed Little Joe and sat down with him on his lap as Ben descended the staircase. “Pretend you’re asleep, Joe,” he whispered to his baby brother. Adam did the same while Hoss threw himself down on the sofa, rolled to face its back and held his breath. Adam leaned his head against the chair back and closed his eyes just as his father hit the landing and turned so he could see him and Joe in the chair.
Ben smiled. This had to be one of the most peaceful days that he had since Marie had been gone. There were no squabbles. Joe was a perfect angel and it was all Adam’s and Hoss’ doing. He was truly blessed to have such fine sons. He moved quietly down the remainder of the stairs and across the floor. He stopped in front of Joe and Adam and shook his eldest’s foot gently to arouse him.
Adam opened his eyes and yawned. “Hi, Pa.” He stretched a little but stopped mindful of his allegedly sleeping baby brother.
“I thought I heard Joseph yell, ‘look out’” Ben whispered looking at his little boy in a concerned way.
“He’s just a little worried about Nian, Honorable Father, that’s all.” Adam smiled down at Joe. That was true, after all, not the whole of it but true just the same, he thought to himself. “You know how much he tosses and turns in his sleep.” Another true statement. He was on a roll.
“But I thought you were all up stairs sleeping.” Ben looked over at Hoss and back to Joe and Adam.
Hoss decided he had best move before a lightning bolt hit him from above, and rolled toward his father, yawning. “Hi, Pa, what time is it anyway?”
“Time to check on the stock and bed them down for the night.” Ben grinned and slapped his middle son on the back.
Hoss couldn’t help but think that he would be lucky if his father didn’t do the same thing a little lower, a lot hard and many, many times lower on his anatomy later on this evening. “Yes, sir.” Hoss got to his feet and moved to put on his coat.
Adam likewise tried to move but found that his little brother would not budge. He looked down at him and whispered softly, “Joe?”
Joe did not move.
Adam was astounded!
Joe was fast asleep.
“That’s okay, son.” Ben spied Adam’s difficulty out of the corner of his eye. “You sit with your brother. Hoss and I can handle it. Can’t we, son?”
Hoss himself was shocked that Joe was actually sleeping on top of Adam. He sighed and followed his father to the coat rack by the door.
Adam smiled, gave a helpless wave to his Pa, put his head back and closed his eyes. As soon as Ben and Hoss were gone, he planned to pick Joe up, put him on the red divan and hide the fireworks. Unfortunately, before he could execute his plan, sleep overcame him and he didn’t move until Ben shook his foot once again to bring him around. He awoke with a start and then a sinking feeling when he realized that the fireworks were still under the chair in which he was sitting.
“Come on, son.” Ben bent over and picked the little boy up from Adam’s lap. He then gently put his baby down where Hoss had been ‘sleeping’ half an hour before.
Adam used his left foot to feel where the fireworks were. Yep, they were still there. Okay. He would just have to keep Pa occupied while he trusted Hoss to do something with them. “Um, Honorable Father? I think it’s time we thought about getting dinner on the table.” He stood up but not before shoving the flat crate further under the chair.
“Fine, Number One Son.” Ben grinned, slapped him on the back, and began to steer him told the kitchen.
Immediately Adam had the same thought as his younger brother did when their father slapped him on the back earlier. It wasn’t really pleasant and Adam shuddered. He recovered, however, and turned back to address his middle brother.
“Hoss, while Pa and I are doing that, can you take care of that little matter that I’ve been sitting on?” He motioned with his head to Pa’s chair.
Hoss’ eyes grew round as saucers. Oh-no! He realized that Adam had not gotten to the fireworks. He gulped. “Sure thing, Adam. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Great.” Adam put on a happy face and began to tell his father about how all the food for tomorrow that had to be sliced or chopped today since knives were put away before New Year’s so the luck wouldn’t be cut.
When his brother and father were safely out of sight, Hoss sank down in Pa’s chair, settled back and tried to figure out the safest place to put what was under the chair. Maybe it was being in the cold barn dealing with the animals. Maybe it was the pressure to think of a secure hiding place. Maybe it was the inviting feel and aroma of his father’s red leather chair. Whatever it was he succumbed to, Hoss closed his eyes and, lo, and behold, didn’t wake up until Adam came in forty minutes later to let him know to set the table.
“Where are they?” Adam whispered leaning over Hoss.
“Under the chair,” Hoss yawned. “I plumb fell asleep before…”
“We had best wake up Little Joe now or he’ll be up until breakfast,” Ben called from the kitchen door.
“Okay, Pa! I think you better check on the meat.” Adam wanted to keep Pa as far as he could from the fireworks or there could be fireworks sooner than they wanted.
“Oh, that’s right.” Ben grinned and disappeared again.
“Hoss, I don’t care where you put them but get them out from under Pa’s chair!” Adam hissed in his brother’s ear. “And wake up Little Joe!” He then plastered a smile on his face and stalked off to rejoin their father.
Hoss sighed as he looked at his baby brother. Now he had two difficult tasks to choose from first: hiding the fireworks or waking up his impossible-to-wake-up baby brother. Three dull thuds against the inside of the storage room door quickly clarified his course of action: Guillermo and Nana. Joe and the fireworks would have to wait. He quickly moved to see to the two little goats before Pa heard them, too.
So far so good, Adam thought arranging the roast on the serving plate while Ben expertly flipped the potatoes and onions in a skillet. The ranch house’s great room was decorated with large pieces of red paper on which Adam had carefully copied certain Chinese symbols for “Luck,” “Prosperity,” “Health” and the like in preparation for the midnight celebration. Moreover, the baby goats in the storeroom had yet to make a sound, Hoss and Joe were hiding the fireworks while he and his father were preparing dinner and their father hadn’t suspected a thing. Now all there was to do was to get Ben to agree to one more ancient Chinese custom and he and Hoss would have the money to pay the Browns for the fireworks. Ah, yes, he was feeling very lucky. And it wasn’t even New Year’s yet.
“Pa, Hoss said the table is all set.” Little Joe magically appeared at his father’s elbow.
Ben laughed to see that Joe’s red satin hat was back but this time it was on top of his own little brimmed hat that stopped it from slipping down over his eyes. “Hoss fixed it,” he announced proudly. “It’s my sumthin’ red for Nian.”
“And it looks really nice,” his father told him as he readjusted both hats a little straighter on his baby son’s head. “This is my red.” He fingered the red silky neckerchief tied around his neck.
“That’s nice, too, Horrible Father,” Joe bowed low and started to leave but turned back to look pointedly at Adam. “Oh, and everythin’s okay, Adam.” He winked up at his big brother and disappeared as quickly as he appeared.
Ben noticed the wink but didn’t say a word. Must be another one of those little surprises associated with Chinese New Year, he decided filling a bowl with the hot vegetables.
“I’ll take that, Honorable Father,” Adam took the bowl of potatoes in one hand and picked up the meat platter with another. “Just go sit down.”
“But, I…” Ben began to protest as his oldest tried to shoo him out of the kitchen.
“Please?” Adam added and smiled his most charming smile that always reminded Ben of Adam’s mother’s smile.
“Okay.” His father returned the smile, turned and led the way to the dining table.
Hoss was standing outside the doorway and got Adam’s attention as he tried to get by. “I had ta see ta the goats ‘cause they almost broke out so Joe hid the fireworks,” he whispered nervously.
“Where?” Adam mouthed, obviously shocked by the news.
Hoss shrugged an “I don’t know.”
“How?” Adam mouthed again.
Hoss shrugged another “I don’t know.”
“We’ll figure it out after dinner,” Adam whispered back, composed himself, handled the bowl to his brother and motioned for him to join their little brother and father.
“Well, boys,” Ben, hands on his hips, had moved so he could look into the larger living area and was looking proudly at the bright red paper decorations, “the house looks really festive. I should have said it before but you did a really fine, job.”
“Thank you, Honorable Father.” Adam bowed low. “But dinner is getting cold…”
“That’s right.” Ben turned and moved to his place at the head of the table. “Now what are these for?” he asked as he sat down at the table and found some little red folded pieces of paper beside his plate.
“They’re envelopes to give uslai see, Honorable Father,” his oldest son who was fixing a plate for his little brother began to explain. “According to the book,” he just happened to have it sitting beside his plate, “the elder of the family gives the younger members money in little red envelopes on New Year’s Day for good luck and prosperity. We didn’t have any real red envelopes so I thought you could use those red papers instead. They were scraps left over from the decorations.”
Ben was dumbfounded and suspicious at the same time. “And why should they do that, Number One Son? What if Honorable Father doesn’t think that his three sons deserve to receive one of these?”
Adam was taken aback this time but recovered and referred to the book again.“It says here that it’s a centuries old custom, Honorable Father. You’d break the luck if you don’t give us lai see. It says here that the lai see is a symbol of not only good luck but also good will. It’s to promote closeness in the family.”
“I don’t know…” Ben picked up his napkin and placed it on his lap.
“But, Honorable Father,” Hoss interrupted. “You said we could do all the customs and stuff.”
“It just sounds a whole lot like extortion to me.” Ben reached for the bowl of fried potatoes and onions and plopped some on his plate. “And why is it that you didn’t tell me before that this.” He held up one of the red pieces of paper, “Was a custom?”
“Well, Honorable Father,” Adam cleared his throat, “it just never came up. Any way, is there some reason that you don’t want your unworthy sons to have prosperity and good luck in the New Year?” He turned the whole thing around and put it back on Ben with that one question.
“Is there, Horrible Father?” Joe chimed in and, after a silent urge by his oldest brother, used his absolutely irresistible sad little puppy dog face. Hoss also adopted a similar look.
Ben looked from one to another to another and, with each look, he began to feel more and more guilty about his suspicions. “How much money does the book say that Honorable Father has to give his ‘unworthy sons’?”
“Well, it does mention paper money…” Adam smiled mischievously.
“Pennies are lucky, you know,” Ben countered drolly.
“Silver dollars are luckier,” Adam suggested, grinning at his father.
“So the more the money…” Ben raised his eyebrow at Adam.
“…the more the luck, I guess, Honorable Father,” Adam grinned.
“Do you think you could give them to us now, Pa, I mean, Honorable Father?” Hoss looked at him innocently.
“But I thought you said New Year’s was tomorrow, Number Two Son?” The alarms were going off in Ben’s head again.
“Yes, but…” Hoss stammered trying to think of a come-back.
“And you’re the ones that want to follow the custom, right?” Ben focused on his usually truthful middle son.
Hoss nodded slowly in the affirmative.
“Well, so we’ll just wait ‘til midnight so my sons will be lucky in the New Year,” Ben decided with a grin.
Adam closed his eyes and sighed to himself. He sincerely hoped that they were all real lucky for the New Year but he feared between the goats and the fireworks their luck was starting to run out.
Still Sunday, February 14, 1847 but Real Close to Midnight, Monday, February 15, 1847, Year of the Goat
Hoss couldn’t help feeling all jumpy and jittery inside. How could he not have realized sooner that his baby brother would naturally stash the fireworks in his favorite hiding place? He took little solace in the fact that his big brother Adam was also kicking himself for the same reason.
“Where’d ya think I’d put ‘em?” Little Joe asked them when Pa had briefly left the room to retrieve a towel from the kitchen to mop up a minor cocoa spill. “Pa never finds anythin’ there, ya know.” The little boy smiled confidently in his four and a half year old way.
Adam and Hoss traded really stunned looks.
“Remember not to tell, Joe,” Hoss cautioned softly as their father returned and began to clean up the cocoa.
Once again Ben ignored the exchange between his younger sons figuring that this was the same little surprise that Joe had winked to Adam about earlier.
“What’ll we do now?” Hoss whispered to Adam who was still in the state of shock over their baby brother’s revelation.
Adam pulled Hoss back with him to the dining table. “Well, we can’t shoot off anything now. We’ll just have to keep Pa away from there. We’ll move them after everyone goes to bed.”
“And what about the…you know?” His middle brother motioned with his head to the storage room. Even now, he could hear the little goats’ gentle bleats. Luckily the wind howling outside was masking their sounds right now.
“Later,” Adam hissed through his clenched teeth. “Just play along right now.” He moved to the far side of the fireplace to pick up his guitar. “Hey, Joe,” he called to his littlest brother who was pretending to play a game of checkers with his bear. “I think we better practice making some noise to scare away Nian. After all, it’s almost time, you know.”
“Here you go, little brother.” Hoss handed the four and a half year old a wooden spoon, pushed the checkerboard aside and put a little round washbasin in front of him. “Let’s hear what you can do.” He picked up long handled pans himself and banged them together as hard as he could. The sound he produced made Ben who was engrossed in his reading jump in his chair.
“What the devil…?” Their father complained after his heart went back down out of his throat to where it belonged.
“We’re practicin’ for Nian, Pa,” Joe announced proudly and beat a rhythm out on the bottom of the metal tub.
“So I hear.” Ben rolled his eyes, put aside his book and picked up his glass of sherry.
“Adam, play somethin,’ will ya, pleaz?” Joe looked over at his oldest brother who seemed to have his eyes glued on his father as he had most of the evening.
“Okay, Joe.” Adam smiled at him and began to pluck out a fiery Spanish number on his guitar while their father sank back in his chair to listen.
Of course, Ben didn’t realize at the time that the noise was to cover up another noise—that of Guillermo and Nana. And then too, little did the boys realize that their noise was actually making the two little goats become even more agitated.
All the while they were ‘practicin’, Adam continued to keep a watchful eye on Ben, praying that he wouldn’t wander anywhere close to…
“When are we gonna shoot off…?” Joe stopped pounding and began to whine, obviously becoming tired and cranky due to the late hour. The warning look his oldest brother gave him caused him to swallow the rest of his words. He sniffed indignantly and resumed his percussion accompaniment.
Ben put his empty wineglass down on the table beside him and glanced over at the grandfather clock. Two minutes and it would be midnight. Then they could all go to bed. Thank goodness. He sighed, got to his feet and stretched making his Pa-type groan that, much to his dismay, he was making more and more frequently these days. Maybe a nice pipe full of tobacco would get him through the next few minutes and whatever little surprise his sons were planning for the midnight hour, he decided strolling toward his desk.
Adam was the first to notice their father’s movement and grabbed Hoss by the arm to get his attention. Hoss froze immediately. Joe finally noticed he was the only one making noise and looked over in time to see Ben casually strike a match on the side of the box, touch it to the tobacco in his pipe and, before he looked, toss the still smoldering match into the metal waste can beside his desk. For some inexplicable reason, however, Ben watched the flight of the match as it sailed into the can to make sure it had fallen inside. That’s when he caught sight of ….
Adam was the first to react. “No-o-o-o, Pa-a-a-a!!!!!” He threw the guitar to Hoss, sprinted to his father and pulled him away from the desk when the first explosion sounded.
B-A-N-G-G-G!!!!!!!!!! POP!!! POP!!! POP!!! POP!!! POP!!! POP!!!
“What in the hell is going on?!!?!!” Ben roared as he dodged a fireball from a Roman candle, lunged for Little Joe, picked him and his bear up, and dove to floor behind the divan.
POP!!! POP!!! B-O-O-O-M-M-M!!!!!!!
“Pa, you ain’t allowed ta swear!” Joe told him emphatically, oblivious to the POP!!! POP!!! B-O-O-O-M-M-M!!!!!!! reverberating across the room.
Ben stared at Joe in astonishment. He just couldn’t believe that all of this smoke, sparks and noise were not frightening his four and a half year old at all! Little Joe was proving to be as brave and as steadfast under fire as any grown man he’d ever seen.
“Adam!!! Hoss!!!!” Ben bellowed almost as loud as the fireworks.
“We’re okay, Pa!!!!!!” Adam yelled from behind Ben’s chair where he and Hoss had taken refuge. He quickly noted that his older boys had snatched up Joe’s washbasin and one of Hoss’ pans to use for protection from the barrage of pyrotechnics.
B-O-O-O-M-M-M!!!!!!! B-A-N-G-G-G!!!!!!!!!! POP!!! POP!!! POP!!!
WHIZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!! A small rocket flew past Ben’s right ear and into the fireplace. It exploded in a shower of bright blue flashes. Another followed ending up in the fireplace too but this one produced a silver plume when it made contact with the fire’s heat. WHIZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!!
A noise from behind him caused Ben to turn on his knees with Joe still in his arms. THUDDD!!!!! And then came a different kind of a B-A-N-G-G-G!!!!!!!!!!
The storage room door flew open crashing against the wall and the two very frightened little Spanish goats shot out of the room like they were shot out of a cannon.
“B-A-A-A-H-H-H! B-A-A-A-H-H-H! B-A-A-A-H-H-H!” The poor things frantically scampered around the great room trying to escape from the loud noises and sparks. “B-A-A-A-H-H-H!”
Was this the little surprise? Ben was as stunned by the arrival of Nana and Guillermo as he was by the fireworks.
B-A-N-G-G-G!!!!!!!!!! POP!!! B-O-O-O-M-M-M!!!!!!! WHIZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!!
“It’s midnight!!!!!!!” Adam yelled in between the coughs as he ducked to evade another rocket while running to the front door to let some of the smoke out and coincidentally let the good luck in, according to Adam’s trusty book.
“Nian!!!!!!!!!!” Little Joe shrieked in his father’s ear, buried his head in his father’s shoulder and gripped him so tightly that his father was having trouble breathing. The smoke was not helping him either.
Great. Now he’s scared, Ben thought, trying to stop his right ear from ringing due to his youngest’s shriek by wiggling his finger in it. He then reached over to dump the apples out of the metal bowl that sat on the pier table beside him and, using the bowl as a shield, made his way with Joe through the chaos to the bottom of the staircase.
“Everyone upstairs”! Ben yelled charging up the steps to the second floor. “NOW!!!!!!!!!!!”
Everyone including Nana and Guillermo obeyed Ben immediately but not before snagging an apple each – the goats, not Hoss and Adam — from the floor as they ran by. Again Ben was astonished when the two kids – the goats, not Hoss and Adam – clambered past him as he and little Joe waited two steps above the landing for the fireworks to burn themselves out. After another minute, all the “B-O-O-O-M-M-M!!!!!!! B-A-N-G-G-G!!!!!!!!!! POP!!!”-ing ceased.
Expecting the worst but hoping for the best, Ben cautiously looked around the corner at the scene below. By the grace of God, nothing was set on fire. It was right there and then he resolved to change all that as soon as he confronted his three sons. However, before that, there was the matter of Guillermo and Nana to attend to.
“Adam! Eric!’ He tried to control his voice but it was real difficult as he turned to address them as they stood at the top of the stairs some distance away from him and Joe. “Get those animals out where they belong right this minute!!!!!!!” he roared, causing his older sons to jump, give him a quick “yes, sir” and scamper off to search the upstairs for the little goats.
“Happy New Year of the Goat, Pa,” Joe smiled happily at his father and gave him a quick hug around his neck. He then pulled back to look at Ben and realized that his Pa was not real happy about anything, let alone the Year of the Goat. He gulped and immediately sobered as he recognized Ben’s look as one he got when a spankin’ was in his future.
Ben cleared his throat and rolled his eyes heavenward. He then set a now silent Joe down on his feet and, taking his little hand in his, walked him down the remaining stairs. Upon reaching the bottom step, he dropped Joe’s hand, looked down at the little boy sternly and pointed to the blue chair. Without a word, his youngest climbed up, sat down, his bear in his lap and watched his Pa walked around mentally assessing the damage and straightening up what he could. Ben did stop his activity long enough to growl at his older sons as they tried to scurry past him, the little goats in their arms, a sharp “Get yourselves back in here right away! We’re going to have a little talk!”
With this ultimatum ringing in their ears, Adam and Hoss closed the front door behind them. It was no more than five minutes than they were back, standing in a line with their baby brother in front of their angry father waiting for the real fireworks to begin.
“What do you have you say for yourselves?” Ben growled at no one in particular.
Hoss and Adam looked at each other but before either could speak…
“Let me ‘xplain,” Little Joe stepped forward to the surprise of all concerned and looked straight up at his father.
Thank you, Lord, Adam breathed hoping the little urchin would use his magic to charm their father.
“First, Pa, it’s Nina and Guillermo’s year so bad old Nian would have got ‘em if they weren’t with us. Then Hoss and Adam had ta pay the Brown boys for ‘them fiery things’ ta protect Nina and Guillermo and that’s why they need you to give them let’s see….”
“Lai see,” Hoss whispered out of the side of his mouth.
Ben glared at him and Hoss took a step back.
“Really?” He folded his arms over his chest and looked down once again at his baby son. “Just how’d Nina and Guillermo get into the house, Joseph?” He realized that his best bet to get the truth — even though it was a bit garbled — was to stick with his youngest.
“Adam and Hoss branged them in fer me,” Joe said matter-of-factly.
“And why did they do that, Joseph?” Ben inquired again. It wasn’t the fastest way to the truth but at least it was the truth.
“’Cause I told ‘em that I’d tell ya all ‘bout them ‘fiery things’ if they didn’t save Nina and Guillermo from bad old Nian.”
“So you blackmailed them?” Ben was just a bit taken aback that four and a half year old was capable of such a thing.
Little Joe looked confused.
“Never mind, son.” Ben now understood exactly who was responsible for this whole mess. He shifted his glare from his youngest to his oldest. “So, this was all an elaborate plan to get money for fireworks which neither you nor Hoss are not supposed to have?” Ben roared at Adam.
Again someone other than Adam spoke up.
“Yes, sir. Hoss nodded feeling it always best to come clean. He then looked hopefully at his father. “Do we still get lai see?”
Ben snarled at him, causing him to take another step back.
“I guess that’s a ‘no,’” Adam whispered to his younger brother but not soft enough for his father not to hear him.
“Your big brother’s right, Eric, but you’re all getting something else right now starting with your big brother here!” Ben’s dark eyes burned into Adam’s as he clamped his hand on his son’s arm and began to pull him over to his red leather chair.
Oh-oh, Adam knew it was the end for him if his father sat down in that chair because he wouldn’t be sitting down anytime soon. Think fast, Adam.
“But, you can’t, Pa,” Adam protested and snagged his book off the pier table as he was pulled by it.
“And why not?!?!” Ben thundered at him while he struggled to locate the precise page.
Eureka! Adam shoved it in front of his father’s nose. “It says right here that it’s unlucky to make anyone cry on New Year’s Day because it is considered unfestive.” He indicated the exact passage with his index finger. “And this is,” he made a point of twisting back so he could look at the grandfather’s clock, “New Year’s Day.”
“Hmmm,” Ben looked at his oldest son skeptically but took the book from him, sat down and read what his oldest had been pointing too.
“You did promise us that we would follow all the customs and traditions for two days, Pa,” Hoss smiled, reminding him gently.
Ben shot Hoss another pointed look which caused him to take a third step back and pull Little Joe in front of him this time for good measure. Ben then sank back in his chair to consider his three sons. “Hmmm, you could have told me that little fact before midnight, don’t you think?”
“I just never thought it would be an issue.” Adam smiled innocently, relieved that he was saved by the book from any physical chastisement for now.
Ben studied him for a minute, frowning. “Well, I guess you can always start your punishment by getting this room back in order. That shouldn’t make any of you cry.”
“Sorry, Pa. We can’t do that either,” Adam grinned taking the book from his father and turning the page. “It says right here that we can’t clean anything on New Year’s Day either or we may sweep out all the good luck. We’re not even supposed to touch a broom.”
Ben gaped at Adam.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Adam shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, “it’s a custom.”
“Give me that book,” Ben ordered gruffly putting out his hand to his son who obediently relinquished it. “Now get to bed and we’ll discuss this all after we get some sleep.” He glared at all three of his sons.
“Yes, sir, Pa.” Hoss gulped, bent down and picked up a suddenly very sleepy Little Joe and his bear and moved toward the staircase. “Good night,” he called to his father and started up the stairs.
“You know, Pa, one day we’re going to look back on all this and have a good laugh,” Adam told his father as he began to follow after Joe and Hoss.
“That’s what you think…” his father growled at him and took a swallow of whiskey straight from the bottle.
“Happy Year of the Goat, Pa.” Adam turned, smiled to himself and headed up to bed.
Ben scowled, took another swallow of whiskey and opened Adam’s book determined to find a loophole overlooked by his smart-alecky oldest son if it took him until dawn. He didn’t but…
11:30 p.m., Wednesday, February 2, 1859
“Pa was true to his word, little brother.” Adam poured Ben some more sherry and then handed the decanter to Hoss. “We didn’t clean up the mess until the day after Chinese New Year’s Day and he didn’t punish us until then either.”
“Of course, wearing something red was not a problem once Pa got done with us,” Hoss laughed, pouring another glass of wine. “Our behinds including your little one were plenty red enough to ward off that old Nian for a good couple of days after that.”
“As I recall it, for the next week, you were only allowed out of your rooms to eat, do chores and wash.” Ben smiled wryly sipping his sherry. “It was like a holiday for me.”
“And we could only address Pa as “Honorable Father” and refer to ourselves as “unworthy sons” except you, Little Joe, because Pa didn’t want to hear you call him “Horrible Pa,” although at the time, I thought that was the truth,” Adam smirked.
“Believe it or not, so did I,” Ben laughed setting down his wine glass on the pier table. “I keep telling you that it was always tough for me to punish you boys.”
“I also vaguely recall that you had a pretty fierce hangover on New Year’s Day, Pa,” Adam smirked again. “That’s when I learned at least that wine and whiskey don’t mix.”
“You know, smart guy, you could start the New Year with a red behind to scare off bad old Nian if you’re not careful,” Ben warned sternly, giving his oldest an appropriate look.
All three of his sons looked at each other and then laughed. No one was taking Ben seriously.
“Does that mean that you may consider a little celebration, Honorable Father?” Adam raised his eyebrows at Ben and set the black reference book down on the table in front of Ben. “I mean I’ve got some stuff.” He smiled mischievously and moved to the storage room that twelve years ago had held the two tiny goats.
Ben held his breath in anticipation. However, to his relief, all Adam retrieved was a box overflowing with fireworks and his tan coat.
“And me and Joe can go get Guillermo and Nana, Honorable Father.” Hoss stood, bowed low in front of Ben, and snatched his own coat off the rack by the door.
My turn, Joe giggled to himself sitting down on the arm of his father’s chair. “Oh, Horrible Father, can we have Hop Sing’s New Year’s? Can we, please, oh, can we, please, can we? Please, please, please, please? Can we please, please, ple…?” The sixteen and a half year old was suddenly four and a half again.
Ben immediately pulled Joe down in his chair beside him and clamped his hand over his mouth. “Some things just don’t change,” he sighed looking into his youngest’s thickly lashed big green eyes.
“Can we do it then, Pa?” Hoss thought he would press for an answer to the question since his little brother couldn’t.
Ben looked from one son to another. “It’s against my better judgment but all right.” He rolled his eyes. “But just for tonight.” He removed his hand from Joe’s mouth.
“Hooray!” Joe jumped out of his father’s chair and headed toward the door.
“Maybe we’ll actually get some lai see this time,” Hoss mused pulling on his gloves as his baby brother pulled on his gray jacket.
“Don’t count on it, son.” Ben gave Hoss a meaningful look.
“Happy Year of the Goat again, Pa,” Adam smirked and placed on Ben’s lap his brown coat, his fully packed pipe, a box of matches and a bottle of whiskey. Adam then picked up the pyrotechnics and followed his younger brothers out the front door.
Here we go again. Ben uncorked the bottle and took a gulp. Oh well, he thought to himself shaking his head. Once more, he agreed to this so he deserved whatever happened. This one goes in the plus column, too, Lord. He looked up to heaven and prepared to go outside to join his sons. Maybe this Year of the Goat, he’d be really lucky and bad old Nian would show up and get him. Of course, if Nian was a father too, maybe he would sympathize with him and just take the boys. He picked up Adam’s book from where he left it lying and began to try to find out as much as he could about Nian before the clock struck midnight.
Author’s Note: 10 major storm periods occurred in the Sierra Nevadas during the winter of 1846-47, beginning Oct. 16, 1846, and ending in early April 1847. All of these storms added materially to the season’s remarkable snow accumulation for that season. In fact, it was the late October and early November snowfalls that effectively trapped the ill-fated Donner Party.