This story is dedicated to May with many happy returns of the day- a little earlier I believe. It is submitted with much love and friendliness. I appreciate your reviews. -Willful Red

The Last Christmas

"Pass it forward." Daniel heard a soft voice break into his thoughts.

"What?" He turned to the bright-eyed girl who sat behind him in his sixth grade class.

"Your spelling test." She handed him a stack of tests from their row.

Oh,crap. Daniel thought.

He accepted the papers from her and added his partially completed one to the pile. He'd been so lost in thought, he'd missed most of the test. Adam wasn't going to be happy. It had all started when the teacher had asked them to spell the word believe. His brain had spun in a million directions and he was distracted by more important things.

"Hey. May," He said to the girl behind him. "How old were you when you stopped believing in Santa?"

"What do you mean stopped believing?" She looked stricken.

"Oh, uh. . ." Way to go Danny. He thought to himself. Flunk a spelling test and crush a girl's belief in Santa too. I am going to hell for sure now.

"Danny!" She said laughing.

"Geez, May!" He sighed relieved seeing her grin."I felt like I'd killed a puppy!"

"I don't know maybe seven or eight." She said as they gathered their books to go. "You thinking of crushing the second grade's dream of Santa?"

"No, I was just . . ." He sighed.

Some things were impossible to explain even to a girl like May. It seemed like most of the girls in his class had lost their minds this year. They stared at him, giggled together whenever he spoke and left notes covered in hearts in his locker. He found talking to any of them impossible. They would blush and glance over at their friends not really listening to the words. May was sensible. She treated him the same as always. She told him he was stupid, when he was acting stupid. She looked him in the eyes when she talked to him. She laughed at his jokes only if they were actually funny. Of all the girls, he probably liked her best. She was funny, sweet and didn't swoon every time he walked past.

"It's barely November. Why are you worried about Santa?" She asked as they gathered up their books to head to the next class.

"I'm not worried. Why would I be worried?" He said to her.

She looked at him and laughed. "Do you try to be difficult or does it just come naturally?" She asked him with a grin.

"It's natural, I guess." He paused before they separated down two different hallways. "See you May. Keep on believing!" He said and she laughed as she lifted her hand to wave goodbye to him.

"She doesn't even wear makeup!" He heard from two girls who had been watching their exchange.

"Hi Danny!" They said in unison as he turned down the hall.

Girls! He thought exasperated.

He walked into math class his mind still on Santa and Christmas, and his three little brothers. Guthrie was five and would be easy to keep fooled but it was probably Evan and Ford's last Christmas. He rested his chin in his hand as he stared out the window. He could hear a dull hum behind his thoughts. He remembered a Christmas not so long ago when he'd been sick with bronchitis. He'd been lying in bed forever and was sick of it.. He climbed out of bed. All his brothers were in school and as he passed his little brothers' room he could see they were napping; Ford sleeping in his little crib. He found his Mama in the kitchen.

"What are you doing out of bed?" She asked looking up from where she was rolling out dough.

"I wanna go to school too." He said frowning. "Staying in bed is boring. And I'll never catch up to Crane if I don't finish Kindergarten."

"Well, I'm sorry little Buckaroo, but you are sick. Besides, I'm not sure you can catch up to Crane, honey. He had a head start." She smiled at him. "Why don't you go wrap up in a blanket and you can watch me roll out these cookies, okay?"

He ran and grabbed the quilt off the couch and sat down at the table. His mother tucked the blanket around him so he was snug and warm. She ran her hand along his forehead, briefly resting her lips against his brow.

"Fever's down." She turned back to the where she was cutting out cookies.

"Where's Daddy?"

"With the cows." She said cutting out a Christmas tree.

"Is it Christmas tomorrow?" He asked hopefully.

"Not for two weeks." She said. "Tomorrow you and your brothers are going to frost these cookies. Well, as long as you are feeling better. You seem broody. Something worrying you?"

"Will Santa come?" He asked looking up at his mother.

"Tonight?" She asked.

"No at Christmas. Will he come even if I made a mistake?" He looked up into her face. She paused from her work, and wiped her hands on a towel. "I'm afraid he won't come. I'd hate for him to skip us because of me. Do you think he'll come?" He chewed his bottom lip.

"Why wouldn't he?" She asked him.

"I lied to Daddy about dropping that egg." He looked down ashamed.

"Well, that's easily fixed, isn't it Danny boy?" She turned and saw his sad face. She crossed to him and lifted his chin. "Why so sad? Daddy always forgives."

"That isn't all of it." He kept his eyes down. " I hit Evan."

"Oh?" She sat in the chair beside him.

"He smashed one of my airplanes. I know he's a baby still, but I got mad."

"Everyone gets mad sometimes. Hitting is no way to solve things and little brothers need patience. Everyone in the house has at least one little brother to be patient with."

"'Cept Ford." He said quietly.

"Except Ford." She agreed. "You did make some mistakes, Daniel Robert, but I was thinking of you reading to Ford at night, and I was thinking of you sweeping that whole porch for me. Those are just a few good things you've done recently." She smiled at him and brushed her fingers against his cheek.

"You think he'll come then? 'Specially if I tell Daddy sorry?"

"I think so. Santa knows if you are trying to be a good boy. And you try very hard Danny. It makes me proud how hard you try."

He smiled up into her eyes and felt so warm and snug. Santa would come! He'd been worrying over it for so many days now.

His mother kissed the top of his head and rose to return to her baking, just as they heard his fathers boot hit the top step.

"I smell cookies! Katie Girl, you are the best wife the world has ever known!" He winked at Danny as he stepped into the kitchen. He reached out grabbing his mother around the waist and kissed her. "How's the invalid?"

"Better but guilt-ridden. Adam McFadden don't even think of sticking your fingers in that dough!" She said just as his father started to reach into the cookie dough. "Wash your hands! Set a good example for your little cowboys."

"Yes ma'am!" He said laughing and turning to the sink. "Never cross your Mama, Danny Boy. She's got a fierce temper hiding under all that beauty."

"Adam!" Just then they could hear Ford crying. She sighed. "Nap time is over!" His mother said disappearing down the hall. "Don't let those cookies burn!"

"What's the matter son? Feeling bad?"

"Daddy, I lied to you." Danny said ashamed. "I did drop that egg last week and just left the mess."

"Oh." His father said. He wanted to look up to see if his father's face held anger but he was too afraid.

"Danny?" His father said softly. "Look at me, son."

He swallowed hard and looked up into his father's face. "I'm so sorry Daddy, I know a man doesn't tell lies, if'n he can help it."

"That's right." His father said gently. "You want to grow up to be a good man, Danny. You want to be the kind of man your Mama can be proud of, don't you son?"

"I want to be just like you." He said and his father reached out lifting him into his arms.

"I aim to raise you up to be a better man than me." His father kissed his cheek. "I forgive you, Danny. His father didn't set him down but held him in his arms. He rested his head against his father's shoulder.

"I love you, Daddy." He said.

"I love you too, pal." His father said. "I don't know how Santa's gonna manage it; I have such good boys! He's gonna need one sleigh just for the McFadden's of Circle Bar M!"

Danny didn't even remember what he got for Christmas that year. His strongest memory was of his father holding him in his strong arms and falling asleep against his shoulder and dreaming of all the good things Christmas and Santa would bring. He sighed.

"Mr. McFadden? Do you know the answer?"

He looked up into Mr. Foster's face feeling dazed as the class around him giggled.

"No? Somehow I don't think you've been daydreaming about the Pythagorean Theorem, hmm?"

Danny shook his head.

"No? What were you thinking about then?"

Deciding the day was pretty much shot anyway, he answered honestly.

"Santa, and believing, and my mother." He would've continued but the class was roaring with laughter.

"Office!" Mr. Foster said coolly. "Now!"

He rose and walked out and down the hall. He did not need an escort; he knew the way.


"Disruptive, huh?" Brian asked his hands on the steering wheel of the truck looking down at his little brother beside him.

"I'm sorry Brian." He said sadly.

"Well, I've been disruptive a time or two myself." He patted Danny's leg. "Relax, Danny, Adam was at the feed store. He doesn't know. I'll give you a pass on this one, if you agree to help me with my chores this afternoon."

Danny exhaled. "I can do all your chores!"

Brian laughed. "Helping will do, but you can clean my boots too, if you want."

Danny stared out the window. "I'll do anything you ask, as long as I don't have to face Adam."

Brian laughed and reached over and mussed his bangs. "You need a haircut."


"Crane?" Danny stood beside his older brother's chair. Crane was bent over his desk working. Crane was always working on homework.

"I can help you with your homework later, okay? I just gotta figure this problem out."

"No, I don't need help, I just got a question."

Crane set his pencil down and faced his brother. "What?"

"Well, if you got a problem in front of you, how do you solve it?"

"What? What are you talking about?" Crane looked at Danny. The kid looked stressed and worried.

"I just mean," It was hard to ask the question without giving too much away. "I mean, how do you plan things? You are so organized, and I'm so . . .I've got this thing I want to do, and I want to be organized in how I do it. I don't want to screw it up."

"Oh." Crane said surprised. "Well, first I make a list. And then I figure out the steps I need to do it. I make a list of those, and do them one by one. It isn't hard, Danny. I can help you if you want."

"No, I want to do this myself." He said. "Thanks Crane. Sorry for keeping you from your homework."

"That's okay, Danny."

Danny wandered down stairs and out onto the porch. He sat down on the steps and thought. He glanced around and realized he'd need a notebook. He ran back inside and grabbed his backpack.

"Hey, I haven't seen you all day." Adam said. "You doing alright? How did that spelling test go?"

"I . . .uh . . . forgot some of the words. I don't know. We didn't grade it." He looked up into his big brother's eyes.

"You tried though. That's okay." He reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "You need a haircut."

"I know." He said.

"You seem worried. You okay?" Adam asked him.

"Yeah. I was just . . . I didn't want to disappoint you about that test is all."

"Oh," His brother's voice sounded strange. "Hey, you don't disappointment me, Danny. You are a good boy." He kissed the top of his head and Danny wrapped his arms around his big brother.

"I kind of screwed up a lot today." He said teary. "I'm sorry. I couldn't concentrate. I kept thinking about stuff, you know. I didn't write all the words. I kind of zoned out."

"What were you thinking about?" Adam asked.

"I dunno. Christmas, and I . . .I'm sorry, Adam." He sighed.

"That happens sometimes, Danny. One time, I nearly ran the tractor into the fence. I was working away and all of the sudden I was remembering this one time, Dad and I rode out to the tops together, just the two of us. And the next thing I know, I'm about three feet from the fence line!" He stepped back and lifted Danny's chin so that he could see his eyes.


"Yep." Adam said. "You want me to talk to your teacher and see if you can retake it?"

"Nah, I can do extra credit work. I don't want it to be a big deal."

"Okay." Adam ran his hand through Danny's bangs. "You can talk to me, buddy, right? I don't want you scared of me. I love you, pal. You know that, right?"

"Well, you tell me like seventy times every single day, so I think I'm pretty clear on that." Danny looked up at Adam with a grin.

"Yeah? Well, if you're thinking that's gonna make me cut back, you are dead wrong, buddy. Now I'm gonna double up on my efforts."

Danny squirmed free of Adam's grip. "I got some work to do, Adam."

"Okay, I love you Danny." Adam said grinning.

"Yeah, got ya." Danny said grabbing his notebook and pen.

"I love you, pal. Love ya!"

"Adam!" He ran out to the porch, as his brother called out to him.

"Love you buddy!"

He shook his head laughing. He felt so much better, and thought briefly of going back inside and telling Adam about math class too, but then decide he'd better quit while he was ahead.

He sat down on the step and carefully wrote out his plan - following Crane's instructions.

He wrote:

Goal: Make sure Evan, Ford and Guthrie have a great Christmas and still believe in Santa

1. Find out what they want for Christmas.

2. Figure out a way to make sure they get it.

3. Make sure they know it is from Santa.

"That should do it." He thought to himself. "Now I just need to make sure it happens."

He snapped his notebook shut, and sat back looking up at the bright stars.

"Hey, there Danny." Brian said from inside the front doorway. "My boots ain't gonna clean themselves."

He sighed. "Yeah, man. I'm on it!"

Brothers! He thought. They might be the only thing worse than sixth grade girls!