The Deputy’s Christmas
Deputy Marshal George Thayer wasn’t a happy man this Christmas Eve. He’d worked late (again) and fallen asleep at his desk (again), and now that blasted banging from the jail had jolted him awake.
From the jail? George sat bolt upright, wincing as his back cracked. For once, the jail held no prisoners. There were no brawlers awaiting an appointment with the judge, no one to be transported to prison. He didn’t even have a drunk sleeping off a binge. So what was making all that noise back there? He shoved the latest wanted posters into the desk drawer — Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid weren’t going to walk in the front door anytime soon. Pushing away from the desk, he took two steps toward the back door.
The gaslights suddenly sputtered and went out. George stumbled against one of the chairs and nearly tumbled head over heels. What the devil was going on?
From the back rooms, a faint glow appeared, outlining the door to the jail. The door swung slowly open, though no hand held the knob. George could see both doorknobs, one corner of the first cell and the short hallway leading to the storage room. He could not see a source for the light, though it spilled from the room and illuminated part of the floor of the main office. Neither could he explain the sudden jingling of sleigh-bells.
“Who the hell is back there?” George took another step forward, then halted. The light intensified, making him blink and put up a hand. He rubbed his eyes.
A figure stood in the doorway, outlined by bright light. A slight figure, boyish, almost pretty, with a mass of dark curls atop an impish face and a brilliant white robe that brushed the ground. A dimple creased one rosy cheek. “The hour is at hand, Marshal Thayer.”
“What hour? Who in tarnation are you and what are you doing in my jail?”
“The hour for you to make some changes.” The figure glided forward. There was no click of boot heels on the wood of the floor. The light brightened even further. “The hour for you to look back at your life and see where you’ve gone wrong.”
“Where I’ve—” George raised a fist. “Listen, son, you’ve got about five minutes to hoist up them robes and prance your way outta here before I—”
The light went out. The bells rang louder and louder, until George put his hands over his ears. A bright beam shot from the darkness at the back of the jail, blinding him. George fumbled behind him, found the chair, and sat heavily.
“Do not trifle with me, mortal.” The robed figure stood to one side of the bright doorway. It waved a slender hand. “See what you once had. See what you have given up.”
Suddenly, on the wall of the office, George beheld a familiar image. He stood beside his wife, one hand on the shoulder of his son. “You were happy once,” the voice of the figure spoke.
“I’m still happy.” He stared at the image, ignoring the way his voice wobbled at the protest. So what if he saw them a little less lately? Margaret was satisfied with the extra income, and Little George would understand one day.
The picture on the wall changed. He saw other images, other pictures of himself and his family. Then, George beheld an old man, gnarled and wrinkled. “See your future if you do not change your ways. Do you wish to end your life alone?”
More pictures appeared, flashing past his eyes. Images of Christmas: gay parties with elegantly dressed women and handsome men, houses decorated with greenery, festive trees. “See what you are missing. See the true meaning of this night.”
The images faded. The beam of light grew thinner and even more brilliant. A Christmas Star shone on the wall, nearly bright enough to flame. “You have traded the love of family and of God for a love of money, but it’s not too late. You can change, George Thayer. You can return to the man you once were.”
The figure glowed brightly in the light. It pointed with one finger, and what felt like a bolt of lightning sizzled through George’s body. He dropped from the chair, landing on his hands and knees.
“I’ll change!” He cried. “I’ll do my best.”
“Go home to your family, mortal. Celebrate the holiday with them, and make your home a loving one.”
George got to his feet, staggering as his legs trembled. He stumbled out the door and half-ran down the street. To every passing stranger, he called a “Merry Christmas.”
“Damn, old man, I thought his hair was going to catch fire!” The angelic figure in the marshal’s office struggled out of the robes, which did not seem quite so white now that the gaslights suddenly sputtered back to life. He shoved the dark curls out of his eyes and sat on the corner of the desk, dusting off his bare feet before donning a pair of socks and a very expensive pair of boots.
The brilliant light in the jail outlined a tall form, which reached up to detach a metallic device from the ceiling. The light vanished, and a lanky blond ducked his head and entered the office. He stretched out an arm to turn the rest of the gaslights back up, then slid a hand behind the chair that George had sat upon, to tug a metal plate from beneath the cushion. In his other hand, he held a thick coil of wire.
“You gotta admit it worked a treat, though. He thought he’d been struck by God’s own power.”
“You nearly blew him out of that chair is what I thought. The magic lantern show was great, though.”
“I liked the electric light. We ought to get some of them things for our place.”
The boyish figure snorted and stood, clapping the taller man hard on one shoulder. “I nearly caught fire myself in that outfit. Electric lights? Electric burners is what they are.”
A wistful expression crossed the big man’s face. “I thought it was pretty. All that bright light. Like having the sun inside at night.”
“Trust me, partner, we don’t need the sun at night. You looked pale as a ghost crouched over there in your corner with that light on. Gaslight’s more natural.”
“You was the one supposed to be a ghost.” A grin spread below the axe of a nose. “You did look right spooky, too, kid. Practically glowing in them robes.”
“So long as it works, old man.”
“You think he’s really going to change?”
“We’ll have to give Little George his dime back along with those family photographs if Big George doesn’t change.” The smaller man reached behind him, fishing in the desk drawer. He grinned back at his partner. “But I think Deputy Marshal Thayer will have a new appreciation of home and family after our little performance.”
“It ain’t natural for a man to work that hard anyhow, and ignore his little boy like that.” The big man began piling his machinery into a box. The last thing to go was a set of sleigh bells, which jingled loudly before he wrapped them in the robes.
A satisfied grunt signaled the successful end of the search through the desk. The smaller man held up a roll of papers and slapped them against his other palm. “Here’s one less thing for Deputy Marshal Thayer to worry about.”
“Ought not to leave temptation in the man’s way.”
“Too easy to go back to his old habits if we leave this here for him to chew over.” He slipped the papers into his jacket pocket. “Finish packing up your contraptions and let’s get home to our own Christmas Eve.”
The tall man hefted his box of equipment. “Yeah, or we’re gonna be late for our own party.”
His partner snorted again, brushing the dust from his trousers. “No party starts without me, old man. We’ll have plenty of time to get into our party clothes.”
“What’s wrong with what I got on?”
“Never mind. I’m sure Ned’s got your outfit all laid out for you.”
“You two sure do put a lot of mind to what I wear.”
“Somebody’s got to, old man.” The smaller man turned down the gas and locked the front door before following his partner out the back door and locking that behind them. The marshal would be disheartened if he found how easy his new locks had been to pick.
The two made their way down the alley behind the offices, moving as easily as if they were in their own backyard. The box rattled slightly, and the big man reached inside to pack the robes more tightly around his precious machinery. He glanced upwards as they passed through the darkness.
“Stars sure are bright tonight, kid.” He stopped to stare at one star in particular. One bright star almost directly overhead. “You figure them wise men really followed a star all them years ago?”
“You come up with the craziest notions, old man! Who cares what a lot of old geezers did thousands of years ago?”
The big man’s face turned wistful once more. “It’s a nice story. All them folks meeting up in a stable.”
“Filthy places, stables. Not the sort of place you’d want to raise a baby.”
“I don’t reckon that was the point, kid.”
“I suppose it is a nice story, though. And a good excuse for a party.”
“You don’t never need no excuse to have no party. And maybe we ought to be more respectful.”
“You’re respectful enough for both of us.”
“You’re the one Little George came to, kid. You didn’t have to go along with all that.”
The smaller man put a hand to the papers in his pocket, patted them with a smile. “Ah, but I had an ulterior motive, remember. Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid are too grand for the deputy to worry his head over.”
His partner said nothing, but the flash of a grin made it plain that he didn’t believe the statement for an instant. The two walked on in silence until they reached Montgomery Street. As they waited for a cab, the big man threw an arm over the smaller one’s shoulder.
“Merry Christmas, kid.”
The smaller man elbowed him in the ribs, ducking out of the embrace. “Merry Christmas, you old geezer.”