Daniel tiptoed downstairs in his bare feet. The floor was cold as ice, but knew he stood a better chance of managing it quietly if he were barefoot. You never knew what was lurking on the floor, and he was desperate to get the presents under the tree as quickly and quietly as possible. He'd hidden them in the hall closet, way in the back behind his father's cowboy boots. Finding his father's boots had just about done him in, but it also reassured him that no one ever went in the hall closet.
He opened the door slowly and pulled out the two boxes he had carefully wrapped. He felt a sense of pride and excitement as he set them under the tree. He couldn't wait for Guthrie and Ford to see their presents from Santa. He reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled out the envelope for Evan. He had so longed to have enough to buy Evan a saddle, but it was just too much money. Instead he wrote Evan a short note from Santa explaining that he just couldn't quite get a saddle for him, then he had asked May to copy the note in her handwriting so Evan wouldn't suspect it was him.
"This note is terrible." She said looking up at him.
"Well, thanks a lot." He said.
"No, I just mean you basically told him Santa's too broke to get him his Christmas present."
He thought about what he'd written. "Yeah, you are right. But what should I say?" She considered thoughtfully.
"How about this: Santa didn't want to get him the wrong saddle, so he's gonna let Evan pick one out for himself - and here's the money for that?"
He hoped it would be enough so that Evan still believed. He set the envelope near the other presents and turned around to go back upstairs and wait until morning. As he turned he ran directly into Brian.
"Ah ha!" Adam said dramatically turning on a lamp.
"We caught Santa!" Brian said. "This has always been my childhood dream. Thank you, Danny. You've made my dreams come true." He grinned at his little brother.
"I just wanted to add some presents. That's all." Daniel said. "I'm awfully sleep though, so . . ."
"Oh, no! We've had enough of you not talking." Adam said. "Sit down mister."
His shoulders slumped and he sat down on the couch.
"Daniel Robert McFadden, did you get a job without my permission?" Adam said skipping right to the point.
"Mr. Carter talked! I knew he would!" Danny said frustrated.
"Oh my God! You got a job from old man Carter? You are scared to death of his dog! Really? You went over there all by yourself, walked past that dog, and got a job?" Adam looked at Brian.
"I think we should've got him a better Christmas gift." Brian said.
"Hell, yeah." Adam said chuckling. "Sorry buckaroo, when went shopping we didn't know you were working on sainthood."
"Adam." Danny said annoyed. "It isn't anything like that. I just . . .how old were you when you stopped believing in Santa?"
"Oh, I don't know maybe seven or eight. Probably about the same age as . . ." He stopped his sentence. "Whoa." He said suddenly. "I got to sit down."
"They lost so much already, you know. I thought they could have this for just a little bit longer." Danny said softly.
"So, you figured out what they wanted and got a job and bought it for them?" Brian asked finding his vision blurred by tears.
"Well, yeah." Danny said. His older brothers looked at each other and him in disbelief.
"How long?" Adam asked his voice thick. "How long did you work?"
"Six weeks." Danny said. "I got Ford a remote-controlled truck, and Guthrie those army men - the kind I used to love when I was little - a great big set. But Evan wanted a saddle and I didn't make near enough money, so I'm just giving him the money. I hope he still believes."
"How much money did you earn? Those remote controlled trucks are expensive." Brian said.
"Two hundred and twenty-five dollars." He said.
"Holy Crap!" Brian said. "Oh, we are keeping you for sure! Did you hear that?"
"I did! You spent it all on them?" Adam asked.
"Yeah, after Guthrie and Ford's presents, I had one hundred forty-eight dollars for his saddle."
Daniel waited wondering what his brothers would say to him, but both his older brothers were completely silent.
"Danny, c'mere." Adam said waving his arm to him. He moved to stand in front of his two brothers who were sitting at either end of the couch. Adam reached out and grabbed hold of his hand, and he thought he was just going to give his fingers a gentle squeeze, but instead he pulled Danny down to him. He landed on his brother's lap.
"Adam, I'm too old . . ." He protested, but Adam wrapped his strong arms around him.
"The hell you are!" Adam said kissing him. "I'm sorry I yelled at you Danny. I'm sorry I got so angry. You are a good, good, good brother."
"Well, I am still a liar." Danny said trying to let Adam off the hook.
"No, and Mom and Dad, would be so proud of you. You are so . . ." Adam stopped talking his eyes filled with tears. Danny drew in a deep breath.
"I just want to be like you, Adam." His brother looked up sharply. "You and Brian both. You are good brothers and you think about the boys first. I just, I know if I am like you, then I'm like him too."
I want to be like you, Daddy.
I aim to raise you to be a better man than me.
"You are like them both. You are gentle and thoughtful like Mama, and clever and hard-working like Daddy." Adam said gently. "And they are looking down on you this Christmas Eve and they are so proud."
"You think so?" Danny asked not even trying to hide his tears.
"Oh yeah." Brian said moving to sit beside them both so that he was now held in both his brother's arms.
The three of them sat together under the soft glow of the lamp and of the Christmas tree that was hung with ornaments that had once been held in their mother's soft fingers.
Danny leaned back on the sofa so exhausted. The little guys had decided that 5:00 a.m. was Christmas, and they came thundering down the stairs. It was good though. So far no one had cried. He glanced down at Guthrie who lay flat on his belly constructing an elaborate war between the two groups of soldiers he'd set up.
"Did ya see? Did ya see Danny?" Guthrie said looking up at him.
"Yeah, those are some great soldiers."
"Santa brought 'em. He brought 'em for me!" His baby brother grinned and he swelled with happiness.
He glanced over at Ford who was attempting to get his remote controlled truck drive up the stairs. He smiled and stretched. Crane flopped next to him on the couch.
"Nice Christmas, huh?" Crane asked.
"Yep. Not bad at all."
"Where did those presents from Santa come from, I wonder?" Crane said looking at him suspiciously.
"I wouldn't know."
"I'll bet you wouldn't." Crane shook his head at him. "Come on, the big brother's want you in the kitchen."
"What'd I do now?" Danny said rising and following Crane into the kitchen.
"There he is." Adam said smiling.
"What?" He asked looking from Adam to Brian and then to Crane. "Did I do something?"
"Yep, and we are gonna do something about it right now." Brian said.
Oh, no! Merry Christmas to you! He racked his brain trying to think of anything he'd done recently.
"Relax, pal. This is a good thing." Adam said laughing. "Geez, you look like you are facing a firing squad!" He glanced at Brian. "You wanna do it?"
"No. You. I don't think I could manage it."
"Yeah, well I'm not saying I can." He cleared his throat. "We have a present for you, but we didn't want to give it to you in front of the little guys. We want Christmas to be happy and this might . . . well, here." He handed him a small box.
He looked up at them and Adam nodded. He opened it slowly, but nearly dropped it when he saw what was inside. He found he was crying and didn't remember starting to do it. He was just suddenly weeping.
"Dad's watch." He said holding it close to his chest.
"Yeah." Adam said. "Mom gave it to him for their first anniversary. She had it engraved on the back."
He flipped it over. It felt like a solemn moment; as if they were in church. He read it aloud.
To the best man, I know - Love KM
"We wanted you to have it, so that whenever you see it, you remember what kind of man you are becoming." Adam said lifting his chin so that he could look into his eyes.
"We are proud of you Danny." Brian said pulling him into his arms. "You are a good brother, and a good little man."
He felt his brothers' arms around him as they all embraced him, and he let himself relax against them. He rested his head against Adam's chest which felt safe and oh so, familiar, and even as he cried he understood why it felt familiar; his brothers' loving embrace felt as secure as his father's strong arms, which had held him not so very long ago.