Western Short Story
The Bethlehem Stage
Allen Russell

Western Short Story

Deputy Billy Brody was dozing in the marshal’s office when a blast of frigid air washed over him.

“Man, its getting cold,” the big man in the open doorway exclaimed, stomping the snow off his boots, “Thought I never would get back to town.”

“Did you see any sign of the horse thieves?” Billy asked, getting to his feet.

“No, the snow’s heavy up there and old man Reynolds isn’t sure which way they went. Any trail they might have left has long been covered.”

The man in the doorway was Marshal Stoney Jackson, a tall powerful man with dark hair and chiseled features. Stoney was the law in the little foothills town of Silver Creek, Montana.

Stoney dropped his big hat on the desk and backed up to the stove to thaw out. Billy poured him a cup of the steaming brew from the pot on the stove.

“That’s mighty good,” Stoney said after taking a sip.

“I thought you could use some after that ride from the Reynolds place. There’s a telegram on your desk.”

Stoney sat down behind his desk and opened the telegram. As he read, a look of concern fell across his whiskered wind-burned face.

“What is it?” Billy asked.

“The Arkansas Kid’s headed this way.”

“The Kid, how do they know?”

“He robbed a bank in Miles City and one of his gang was wounded in the street. He claims they were to meet up in Bethlehem the day after Christmas.”

“That might explain those missing horses. What are we gonna do?”

“I suppose, I’ll have to go after him.”

“You mean, we’ll have to go after him,” Billy said.

“No, one of us has to stay here. With all those cowboys coming in to Silver Creek for Christmas, the town will need a peace officer.”

“I suppose you’re right, but why not wait until after Christmas?”

“That would give the Kid a two-day head start.”

“You can’t cross the mountains in this storm,” Billy warned. “The Kid’s bound to be hold-up somewhere. He ain’t out in this weather.”

“I’ll wait for daylight, but then I’m going, snow or no snow. This storm could provide me the best chance I’ve ever had to catch up with him.”

“I suppose you’re right. It’s just that. . . .”

“I know what’s on your mind, Billy, but it’s my job, nobody else’s.”

“If you say so,” Billy said, “I’ll take a turn around town in a little while. You try and get some rest.”

Billy kept the stove going all night as the storm raged outside. A little after five, he put some side-meat in a skillet and went to wake Stoney.

“It’ll be daylight in a little while,” Billy said, “breakfast is on.”

“Yeah…thanks,” Stoney replied, “What’s it doing outside?”

“Wind’s died down a little, but it’s still snowing. It’s mighty cold, gonna be a rough trail to Bethlehem.”

“It’ll be rough on those outlaws too, if they’re going that way.”

Just as the eastern sky started to lighten, Stoney was ready to go. Billy was standing on the porch of the marshal’s office as Stoney swung up on his horse.

“Take care of yourself,” Billy said.

“You too, I’ll see you in a few days. Don’t take nothin’ off those cowhands, remember, you’re the law.”

“I’ll remember, Merry Christmas.”

Stoney poked his horse in the slats and turned him up the street.

“Merry Christmas to you too, Billy,” he said over his shoulder.

While Stoney rode for the high country, a small group of desperate men were huddled around a smoky fire in the dark timber of the Crazy Mountains.

“Kid, we should get out of these mountains before we all freeze to death,” the outlaw known as Apache Jack said, rubbing his hands over the feeble flames.

“We need to put some distance between us and Silver Creek,” the Kid warned. “We’ll be in Bethlehem in the morning and we can rest there.”

“What’s in Silver Creek that’s got you so spooked?” Jack asked.

“Nothing, but we need to get away from here. We’ll be safer in Bethlehem.”

“What about the law there?”

“There’s no law in Bethlehem and I doubt anybody is following us in this storm.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Jack said, “They’d be crazy to be out here if they didn’t have to be.”

It was late that afternoon when Stoney cut the trail of several horses. The falling snow was heavy, so he knew they couldn’t be very far ahead. They seemed to be traveling the old stagecoach road.

Stoney cut into the trees and headed up across the slope, intending to beat them to a spot where the road crossed Prickly Pear Flats. If he could get there ahead of them, he’d have time to set up a welcome.

Not long after Stoney got to the Flats, he spotted four riders coming his way. He recognized the lead man to be the Arkansas Kid.

The outlaws were traveling easy, in order to spare their mounts. Bundled up against the cold like they were, they weren’t watching the trail ahead and they rode right into Stoney’s ambush.

The snow-muffled stillness was shattered when the bark of a pine tree exploded right in front of the lead rider’s mount, followed by the booming report of a rifle from the timber.

“Hold it right there!” Stoney demanded. “Anybody that moves is dead!”

“I thought you said nobody would be after us!” Jack shouted at the Kid, while trying to hold his spooked horse.

“I’m U.S. Marshal, Stoney Jackson! Get down off those horses and put your hands in the air!”

“I knew it had to be you!” the Kid yelled at the timber. “Stoney, what are you doing out in this storm?”

“I’m taking you back to Silver Creek.”

“You plan to do that all by your lonesome?”

“Me and my posse.”

“Nice try,” the Kid said, “you always were a poor liar.”

“That may be, but you’re coming with me…one way or the other.”

“Come on Kid,” Jack said, “There’s four of us, lets’ rush him.”

“I wouldn’t do that. . . .”

Ignoring the Kid, the others pulled their guns and started up the hill after Stoney.

Stoney’s first shot drove Jack right off the back of his horse. The other two outlaws were pouring lead into the trees when the second man was hit and went down. Losing his nerve, the third outlaw turned to make a run for it just as a slug from Stoney’s Winchester caught him in the side.

Left alone to face the marshal, the Kid sat quiet.

“What’s it gonna be, Kid?” Stoney asked.

The Arkansas Kid was no fool. He knew the marshal could shoot him whenever he decided to, and he knew Stoney would do it.

“You got me, Stoney. I’ll come easy.”

“Drop that pistol, your rifle too.”

After the Kid had done as he was ordered, he rode up to where the marshal was hidden. Still holding his Winchester on the Kid, Stoney walked out from behind a fallen tree.

“You got some sand, taking on that whole bunch,” the Kid said.

“They didn’t give me any choice.”

“You’re still the same hardheaded son-of-a-gun you always were,” the Kid said, “Nobody but you would be out here in this weather chasing me.”

“It’s my job.”

“How much do they pay you to do this?”

“I don’t do it for the money.”

“Well you were lucky today, that’s for sure.”

“Not so lucky,” Stoney said. Pulling his hand away from his shoulder, he revealed a growing crimson stain on his coat.

“You’ll never make it back to Silver Creek,” the Kid said.

“We’re going on…to Bethlehem. You just sit real still and I won’t have to. . . .” Before he could finish, Stoney collapsed.

It was well after dark when Stoney regained his senses. He was covered up with his bedroll and there was a fire going. It took him a few moments to figure out where he was.

“Welcome back,” the Kid said. “I thought you were gonna die on me there for awhile.”

“That’ll be the day. Why didn’t you just leave me here and take off?”

“Didn’t seem like the thing to do.”

“That’s not like you.”

“Maybe not,” the Kid said. “You keep insulting me and I will leave you out here to freeze. I got the bleeding stopped as best I could, but you need a doctor. The weather is getting worse and we need to get out of these mountains.”

“I’ll be alright,” Stoney said. “And I’m taking you back to Silver Creek.”

“We’ll see who goes to Silver Creek if you’re still alive tomorrow. Right now, we’re headed for Bethlehem.”

It was late Christmas Eve as they rode along through the trees. The snow finally let up a little, but the temperature was falling. It was brutally cold as only a Montana high country winter can be. Around midnight they crossed over Paradise Pass. It was mostly downhill from there to Bethlehem.

After another few miles, the Kid was surprised to find a Conestoga wagon stuck in the snow. The wagon had been there for awhile, judging from the snow drifted up against it. It was a four horse hitch. Two of the horses were lying frozen, still in the harness. The other two were missing.

“Some poor pilgrims didn’t make it across before the storm,” Stoney said.

“I suppose they took the other horses and went on. I’m gonna check inside. Maybe there’s some food.”

When the Kid crawled up in the back of the wagon, he found some frozen can goods and a slab of bacon along with a pile of blankets and quilts in the floor.

He was rummaging through the supplies when he heard a groan. Searching down into the blankets, he uncovered a woman’s face.

“What in the world are you doing out here?” he asked.

“On my way to Bethlehem,” she whispered. “The storm…horses all in…couldn’t go any farther.”

“You were crossing these mountains alone?”

“No, my husband, Joseph, took our other horses and went for help. He should be back any time now.”

“How long has that been?”

“Yesterday…maybe, I’m not sure.”

“Why did he leave you here?”

“I couldn’t travel by horseback.”

“What’s the matter, are you hurt?”

“I’m with child and I think I’m about to give birth.”

“With child, this is no place to deliver a baby.”

“I don’t think I have any choice.”

“You just hold on. I’ll get you out of here…somehow.”

The Kid jumped down from the wagon and helped Stoney down from his horse.

“We got to stay here for awhile,” he said.

“What do you mean, stay here?”

“There’s a woman inside. She’s about to deliver a baby, you know anything about birthing babies?”

“I’m a lawman, I don’t know about kids.”

“Well, we’re in one heck of a fix. You need a doctor before you bleed to death and I have no idea how to get her out of here.”

“We can’t leave her,” Stoney said, trying to get to his feet. Being too weak, he slumped back into the snow.

“I ain’t planning on leaving her, you big, dumb. . . .” The Kid didn’t finish. He knew Stoney couldn’t hear him.

The Kid covered Stoney with a bedroll to keep him warm, gathered some dry wood from a blow-down nearby and started a fire.

The Kid figured the smart thing to do would be to ride out of there. He didn’t want to go to jail. This women and her child meant nothing to him. It wasn’t his fault she was stuck up there in the mountains. In spite of all that, he couldn’t bring himself to abandon these people who needed him so desperately.

The Kid was lost as to what to do. For the first time in his life he was worried about someone other than himself. He thought about praying for help, but he couldn’t remember how. Finally, he took his hat off and looked up into the snow-filled sky.

“Lord, I ain’t gonna lay no big story on you or pretend to be anything I’m not. You already know what I am and you know that mule-headed Stoney. I’m figuring you know that lady in the wagon too. Lord, I don’t know what to do…I…I don’t…there’s just no way. I’m asking you to help me, if you will. I would appreciate anything you can do for us. And Lord, if you’re gonna throw in on this deal…it needs to be pretty soon. Well, that’s about it, so long, I mean…amen.”

Thinking himself a fool, the Kid had just started back toward the wagon when he heard a noise coming along their back-trail. He thought the cold was playing tricks on his mind when he heard the rattle of trace-chains and rumbling wheels. He stood and listened until a Concorde coach materialized out of the darkness. The driver was urging his six-horse team along the snow-covered trail.

“Get-up, get up there!” he yelled as he slapped the reins across their backs. “It’s just a little snow, get along there!” The coach rolled up to the fire and the driver brought it to a halt.

The glow from the campfire revealed the driver to be an older man wearing a worn-out black hat and a bulky sheepskin coat. He had a kindly face, a sparse gray beard, deep penetrating eyes, and a strong voice.

“Well Son,” he said, “What are you doing up here in all this snow?”

“I wish I knew,” the Kid said, “I sure never expected to see anybody else up here, much less a stagecoach. How’d you get across the pass in this weather?”

“Son, I’ve been driving this stage since you were a pup. It’ll take more than a little snow to keep me from getting’ through.”

“Well, you’re a welcome sight, Old Timer. I got a wounded man and a woman about to give birth. We need to get them to Bethlehem as soon as we can.”

What’s your name, Son?”

“Clint,” the Kid replied, “What’s yours?”

“Some call me Charley. Most call me Rawhide. What else do they call you?”

“The Arkansas Kid.”

“I thought so. What’s an outlaw like you doing trying to help these people?”

“Maybe I got the Christmas spirit.”

“Maybe,” Charley said. “You’re in luck. I got a doctor on board. We’re on our way to Bethlehem to take care of some sick folks. I guess we can take time to patch up your friend and help the lady.”

“That’s mighty kind of you, but he’s no friend of mine.”

Charley got down from his seat and opened the door to the coach.

“This is Doc Simpson,” he said to the Kid.

“It’s mighty good to meet you, Doc,” the Kid said, shaking the doctor’s hand. “We got trouble in the wagon. There’s a lady and she’s about to have a baby.”

“Get the side rolled up on that wagon cover,” Doc said, “build up the fire. We’ll need some heat in there.”

“We’ll get her going,” Charley said. “Come on, Kid, let’s gather some wood.”

After looking at Stoney’s shoulder, the Doc covered him back up.

“He’ll keep for a little while,” he said. Then he crawled up in the wagon and spoke to the woman. “You just rest easy ma’am. Old Doc Simpson is here, you’re gonna be fine.”

“Doctor, I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve been praying for a miracle to save my baby.”

“Well, I ain’t no miracle,” Doc said. “Most folks think I should confine my practice to horses and mules, but I don’t pay ‘em no mind. You just rest easy and everything is going to be alright.”

“Thank you Doctor.”

“What’s your name, child?”

“It’s Mary, Mary Rowland.”

“Mary, we’re gonna deliver this baby and be on our way to Bethlehem. You’ll be there just in time for Christmas.”

After Doc delivered Mary’s baby boy, he went to check on Stoney.

“That bullet’s got to come out of there, Marshal.”

“What’s keeping you?” Stoney asked. “Let’s get to it.”

“All I got for the pain is a little whiskey.”

“Give me what you got, Doc. We got to get that baby to someplace warm.”

Charley and the Kid kept the fire roaring while Doc went about his work. He got the bullet out of Stoney, stitched up the wound, and bandaged it.

“How’s he doing, Doc?” the Kid asked.

“He’ll live. The cold kept him from bleeding to death. He was lucky the weather was so bad.”

The Kid and Charley helped Doc to load Mary and her baby into the coach and then helped Stoney inside. The Kid tied their horses to the back of the coach and climbed up in the seat beside Charley.

The road down to Bethlehem was steep and narrow. In places there were sheer drop-offs along the trail. The snow was drifted deep. At times, Charlie was bearing down on the brakes as the heavy coach skidded its way down the steep and treacherous road.

The Kid had a death-grip on the seat as he held on for dear life.

“Relax Kid, we’ll make it alright,” Charley said.

“Do you make this trip very often in the winter?”

“Not so much anymore.”

“I suppose, I was lucky you were making it tonight.”

“Maybe it wasn’t luck. Maybe it was your good intentions that brought us across this trail tonight.”

“Not likely.”

“Maybe you ought to try doing something good more often and just give up your outlaw ways. You know you’ll have to answer for that one day soon.”

“Maybe you’re right, Old Timer, maybe you’re right.”

They made it into Bethlehem early Christmas morning. It was quiet on the street as they got Stoney, along with Mary and the baby, into the local hotel.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” the Kid said to Charley as the old driver climbed back aboard his coach.

“No thanks needed,” Charley said. “Son, you think on what we talked about. It’s mighty important and it’s never too late.”

“I will, Old Timer. Can I buy you and Doc breakfast?”

“No now, Kid, we got to roll, but we’ll be seeing you again.” With that the old man shook out the reins and rolled them across the horses’ back, “Get-up, get up there!” The Kid watched as the coach rumbled down the street and faded away into the early morning mist.

Later that afternoon, Stoney was awake and talking to the local town doctor that had taken over his care. The doctor was changing the dressing on Stoney’s wound.

“Whoever took that bullet out did some mighty fine work.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Stoney replied.

“They tell me you’re the marshal from Silver Creek?”

“That’s right.”

“What were you doing up in the mountains in the middle of that storm?”

“Chasing the Arkansas Kid.”

“Look’s like you found him.”

“Him and a few others.”

“What about the woman? How did you come to find her?”

“After I took a bullet, the Kid was trying to get me to a doctor. That’s when we came across the woman and her wagon.”

“Mighty strange story,” the doctor said, “A wanted outlaw trying to save your life.”

“I suppose so. Has anybody seen anything of her husband?”

“He rode in here late yesterday nearly dead from the cold. He kept mumbling something about Mary, but we couldn’t make anything out of it.”

“Is he gonna make it?”

“He’ll most likely lose a couple of toes, but he’ll be fine. They’re a mighty lucky family that you all came along when you did.”

“I didn’t have much to do with it. It was the Kid.”

About then, the door opened and the Kid walked into Stoney’s room.

“How is he, Doc?”

“He’ll be fine, thanks to you.”

“It was nothin’ to do with me. He’s too hard-headed to die.”

“You known him a long time?” the doctor asked.

“Long enough,” the Kid replied. “So long Stoney,” he said, turning to the marshal.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m not about to tell you, that’s for sure.”

“You’re under arrest. Sit down right there until I get dressed.”

Stoney tried to get up, but fell back in the bed.

“You’re not going anywhere for several days,” the doctor said, “You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Don’t start thinking this buys you anything,” Stoney warned as the Kid started for the door, “As soon as I’m up from here, I’m coming after you.”

“I never figured it any other way. So long Stoney, and Merry Christmas.”

“So long Kid, Merry Christmas to you too.”

“Who was that man?” the doctor asked after the Kid was gone.

“The Arkansas Kid.”

“I know that, but who is he really and why didn’t you just shoot him when you had the chance?”

“My momma wouldn’t approve.”

“What’s your momma got to do with this?”

“The Kid’s real name is Clint, Clint Jackson, my kid brother.”

“Well I’ll be, your brother. I guess that explains why he took the trouble to get you and the woman out of the mountains.”

“He had some help. If Rawhide Charley and Doc Simpson hadn’t come along with that stagecoach we would have all died up there in the snow.”

The color drained from the doctor’s face when Stoney said that.

“Rawhide Charley,” he repeated, “What stagecoach? There hasn’t been a stagecoach through here since the railroad arrived in ’85, over four years ago.”

“You’re wrong about that, Doc. They brought us down last night.”

“Who brought you down?”

“Rawhide Charley, the stage driver, I don’t know his last name. Doctor Simpson was with him. We rode right into town and unloaded out in front of the hotel.”

“There was no stagecoach in front of this hotel this morning or any other,” the doctor said, “The clerk said the Kid just showed up with you, the woman and baby, and two horses.”

“That can’t be, I was with them for hours. I was hurt, but I’m not crazy. Doc Simpson’s the one that took the bullet out of my shoulder.”

“Doctor Simpson, are you sure about that?”

“Just as sure as I’m lying here,” Stoney said. “Doc’s an older fellow, stocky, white hair, round faced, with a hint of whiskey on his breath.”

“That describes Sam alright, but it’s mighty strange, Stoney, mighty strange.”

“Why do you say that?”

The doctor leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. He thought for a moment on what he was about to say to Stoney. Finally, he sat up and began to tell him the story.

“Rawhide Charley and Doctor Samuel Simpson died ten years ago. They were trying to get here on Christmas Eve with medicine for some kids with diphtheria. A big snowstorm was raging in the mountains. The coach skidded off a bluff and took the horses with it. Doc and Charlie managed to jump free, but Doc broke his leg and froze to death along the trail.

“Charley made it down on foot with the medicine, but died from exhaustion moments after he got here. That’s the last time anybody ever tried that road in the winter.”

The weather was warmer down out of the mountains. The Kid was riding hard for Wyoming when he thought he heard the rattle of trace-chains coming up behind him. Turning to look, he found nothing but empty landscape. Then he heard the words of Rawhide Charley.

“Remember Son, you’ll have to answer for your deeds someday soon.”

“I’ll remember, Old Timer,” the Kid shouted to the wind, “And thanks for the ride!”