Pulling the collar of his Mackinaw up around his neck, Marshal Cooper Smith stepped out from the doorway of his office onto the boardwalk. It was Christmas Eve and, except for a small gathering at the hotel, the town of Sweetwater had shut down early. One more turn around the town and he would head home himself.
Locking the office door, he walked down the boardwalk checking doors and looking in windows as he passed. Coming to the end of the alleyway, he noticed a fresh set of tracks in the light falling snow leading to the back of the General Store. Drawing his Colt, he stepped off the boardwalk into the large, fluttering snowflakes and followed the tracks to the small alcove at the back of the store. The crunching snow under his boots was the only sound he made as he peeked into the alcove. Huddled tightly in a corner was a young boy.
“Whaddya doin’ here, boy,” asked the marshal, holstering his Colt.
The blond-haired boy looked up at Cooper, noticing the badge pinned to his coat. “You the marshal? Am I in trouble?”
Cooper shook his head. “Not unless you stole somethin’.”
“I was just tryin’ to get in out of the snow,” the boy explained.
Cooper reached in the alcove, taking the boy by the arm. “Why ain’t you at home?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t have one.”
The marshal put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Well, come on, it’s Christmas Eve, you’ll come home with me tonight.”
The boy walked along with Cooper while the marshal finished his rounds, finally walking to the edge of town where a tidy white house, surrounded by a picket fence, stood in a small pine grove. Unlocking the door, Cooper lit the lamp on the table. The boy looked around the house as the marshal ignited the logs in the fireplace.
“It’s the day before Christmas and you don’t have a tree,” exclaimed the boy.
“I haven’t had a Christmas tree in a long time,” replied Cooper, warming his hands next to the fire.
The boy’s face suddenly lit up. “You have Christmas trees all around you. Let’s go cut one.”
With a slight hesitation, the marshal followed the boy out the door. Passing the woodpile at the side of the house, Cooper grabbed a hatchet. They hadn’t gone far when the boy pointed and ran to a tree, spotlighted by the moon, among the tall pines.
“It’s perfect,” said the boy, when Cooper caught up to his young companion. It took him a few minutes to cut down the tree and they dragged it by the trunk back to the house, standing it up against the wall next to the door.
“Where are we gonna put it?” asked the boy.
Cooper hung his coat and hat on a wall peg next to the door and, holding up one finger, disappeared into a bedroom. He came out a few minutes later carrying a wooden tree stand and set it on the floor to the left of the fireplace in front of the window. Next, he took the waiting tree and slipped it neatly into the hole in the top of the stand.
“A perfect fit,” said Cooper proudly.
“We need something to put on it,” advised the boy. Cooper held up his finger again and disappeared back into the bedroom, returning with a big wooden, red and green box. He set it on the floor next to the tree, unhooked the small latch and opened the lid.
“I haven’t done this in a long time. I’m gonna need some help,” explained Cooper.
Together they hung wooden, hand painted ornaments on the tree until only one remained in the box. The boy lifted the sleigh ornament with the name TIMMY painted in gold across its red side.
“Who’s Timmy?” asked the boy, examining the small, hand made ornament for a moment.
The question made Cooper hesitate. “He was my son. He died about five years ago from the fever. He was about your age. It took his mother, too.”
“That why you stopped putting up a tree?”
Cooper nodded and his young friend held up the ornament. “Can I put it on the tree?” he pleaded.
Cooper nodded again and the boy hung the sleigh on the only empty space left, right in front. “Perfect,” said the boy with a big grin.
“There used to be an angel that set on top of the tree,” Cooper remembered, “ I’d lift Timmy up and he’d set it right on top. I buried it with him.”
“It looks perfect anyway,” exclaimed the boy. Cooper and his new friend sat on the sofa to admire their handiwork.
Cooper opened his eyes and realized he’d nodded off. He looked over at the sleeping boy, took a blanket from the back of the couch and covered his young friend. Realizing he hadn’t asked the boy his name, Cooper stroked the youngster’s head, then walked over and blew out the lamp on the table. He would find out the boy’s name in the morning.
Cooper woke with a start and looked around the moonlit bedroom. Swinging his feet to the floor, he rose and slowly opened the bedroom door to a quiet house. He walked to the sofa to check on the boy and found a rumpled blanket. In the flickering firelight, he looked quickly around the house. His gaze settled on the angel sitting on top of the tree.
Hurrying to the table, he lit the lamp. Lying next to the lamp was a folded piece of paper. On the outside was a Christmas tree, drawn with a child’s hand. He opened it and read MERRY CHRISMAS MARSHAL.
A single tear rolled down Cooper Smith’s cheek. He knew of only one person who spelled Christmas that way. Walking quickly to the door, he looked out into the night. He found no footprints in the fresh fallen snow.
Just then, a stiff breeze blew through the pine grove jingling the riding bells hanging from a red ribbon on the porch. Cooper remembered something his grandmother told him a long time ago. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
“Congratulations, Timmy,” he whispered.
Far out in the grove, he heard a child laugh.