The Wild, Wild West
The Night of the Blazing Star
"Brrrrr, its cold out there." Jim West closed the door to the parlor car and shook the light dusting of snow from his jacket and hat as he hung them up on a peg. Moving to the sideboard he poured himself a small snifter of warming brandy and flopped down on the sofa to remove his boots. "Ow, my feet are nearly frozen. That north wind is really starting to kick up something fierce, Artie. Looks like we're going to be in for a nasty night."
Artemus Gordon looked up from the book he was reading and nodded. "I'm glad you made it back before the storm hit, Jim. Orrin's still working on getting that thrown piston fixed, but he hopes to move the train out before the tracks snow over. With any luck, we'll make it to Reno ahead of the worst of the storm."
"That's great," replied Jim," tossing his boots into a corner as he massaged the warmth back into his frozen toes. "We'll need to replenish supplies when we get there. I had to scrape the bottom of the feed barrel just to give Ace and Chief their rations tonight. They're almost out of hay too. If we get stuck in a blizzard it could be hard on the horses."
"Well," Artie grinned, "at least we'll have a white Christmas."
Jim rolled his eyes. "Artemus, you are such a hopeless romantic."
"Yeah, well, I'm just trying to get in the spirit. It is Christmas Eve after all. So, tell me, did you find us a nice one?"
"A nice what?"
"Oh, c'mon, Jim," cried Artie, "a tree that's what. That is what you snuck out to find earlier, wasn't it?"
"Was it?" Jim asked, casting a sidelong look at his partner. "I didn't think you wanted to bother with a tree this year. All those nasty needles all over the parlor car. We were still sweeping them up in July, not to mention every time we sat down we got stuck in the-"
"James, you have no feeling for the season at all."
Jim sighed. "Well, you know, Christmas wasn't exactly a big deal at the orphanage."
Artemus threw a pillow at Jim's head which he neatly ducked. "James West, you are such a liar! You were NOT an orphan."
"Well, maybe not an orphan, exactly," replied Jim with a grin, retrieving the pillow and firing it back with deadly accuracy, "but my mama nearly sold me to the gypsies a couple of times."
"Now that I can believe, said Artie.
A knock at the door of the parlor car interrupted their light-hearted exchange and Jim opened it to see Orrin Cobb, their engineer standing on the platform outside. "Sorry to disturb you Mr. West," he said, "but we have a bit of a problem."
Jim's brow creased with concern. "What kind of a problem, Orrin? Have you run into an issue fixing the piston?"
"Oh, no, nuthin' like that, Mr. West," said Orrin. "That's coming along just fine, sir."
"Well then, what is it?" asked Jim, puzzled by the man's unusual reticence.
Orrin glanced quickly over his shoulder. "They are," he said jerking his thumb in the same direction.
Stepping out onto the snowy platform, Jim saw the source of the "problem". A young Mexican couple waited quietly beside the train. The man led a small donkey upon which the heavily pregnant woman was seated.
Jim could see that both of them were shivering in the cold.
"I was gettin' ready to pull out when I seen them coming up the tracks," Orrin said. "The man asked me if I knew how far it was to the next town, but-"
"What's going on, Jim?" asked Artie, poking his head around the door. "Ohh," he said softly, looking at the shivering couple.
Jim glanced back at Artie. "Looks like a pair of lost Mexicanos. The man asked Orrin for directions."
"Good heavens, James," Artie exclaimed, "They're miles from the nearest town and from the looks of the woman she's not going to make it much farther."
"I can see that, Artemus, but what can we do?"
Artie frowned. "Well, we could give them a lift to Reno."
Jim shook his head. "Artie, what are we going to do with them? We're already running low on supplies and fodder for the animals."
"Good grief, Jim. Look at them," pleaded Artemus. "They're freezing. We can't just leave them here, not with a snowstorm coming. The woman will never survive in her condition. Look, it's just for one night, by tomorrow we'll be in Reno. It will be just fine."
Jim sighed. "Okay. But once we get there, we have to drop them off and get moving. Col. Richmond is expecting us to meet up with him the day after Christmas.
"I know that. No problem."
With a sigh, James motioned to the couple to come in while Orrin led their donkey off to the stock car.
After helping the woman up the steps and into the parlor car, Artie went into the galley to make a pot of coffee and to bring their guests something to eat.
"Gracias, señores," said the man over a steaming cup of coffee as he and his wife helped themselves to the plate of sandwiches Artie brought for them to share. "I am called José. My wife, Maria and I are very grateful for your help."
Artie nodded. "It's going to be a pretty rough night," he said, smiling. "I'm sure the señora will appreciate having a bed to sleep in."
The woman raised her large, dark eyes to Artie's and smiled. "Sí, gracias," she said softly. "You are both very kind."
Jim and Artie exchanged glances. They had not realized at first how very young the couple was. The man could not have been more than twenty and the woman was hardly more than a child, yet, when she spoke, her voice was warm and low.
"You're both a long way from home, José," said Jim. "Where are you heading?"
"It has been a long journey," replied the young man. "I have been looking for work, but times are hard, señor and as you can see, my wife is very close to her time."
Suddenly, the woman took a sharp intake of breath, her hands flying to her belly.
"¿Maria, cuál es él?"
"¡José, el bebé está viniendo!"
Artie's eyes went wide. "Quick," he said, taking Maria's plate before it fell to the floor. "Let's get her into bed. The baby's coming."
Jim stared out the window at the building storm, watching the heavy snow swirl around the Wanderer. With a sigh, he pulled the fringed shutter down and returned to the report he was trying to write.
The door separating the sleeping quarters from the parlor car closed softly and Jim looked up to see Artie, who was staring off into space with a puzzled frown.
"How's Maria?" he asked.
Atrie shrugged. "She appears to be comfortable enough for right now, but I'm afraid she's in for a tough night. From what I've read in the emergency medical manual in our library, labor in first pregnancies can be tricky and prolonged. I hope we don't run into any complications."
"We?" exclaimed Jim. "Artie, you're talking about this like it was our responsibility or something. Let José handle things. He was obviously willing to do that before we took them in."
"I know, Jim," replied Artie, "but there's just something about them. Don't you sense it?"
Jim shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it's just that they're so young and vulnerable, I guess."
Jim shook his head. "Artie, you're just a sucker for strays," he said with a grin.
Artemus pulled back shutter and whistled. "Wow, looks like we've got ourselves a good, old-fashioned Sierra Nevada blizzard going on out there.
Jim nodded. "Yep. Hope Orrin can get the Wanderer through the pass and at least to Coburn Station before the snow gets too deep. I'd hate to get snowed in up here in the mountains."
Artie shivered. "Yeah, visions of the Donner Party come to mind."
"That was years ago, Artie," said Jim. "But still, after a major snowfall like this, it could take several days before the railroad can send an engine to clear the tracks and we're already low on supplies."
Just then, the door between the compartments popped open and José rushed into the parlor car. "Señor Gordon, please come. Maria is calling for you. I think something is wrong. Please come quickly."
Artie and Jim followed the young man to Artie's sleeping compartment, where Maria was lying on the bed, her face flushed with pain. "Señor Gordon," she gasped, grasping Artie's hand, "I do not know what is happening. I think that there is something wrong. It hurts so much. "
Artie put a comforting hand on her forehead and brushed back her dark hair. "I know, Maria, I'm sorry. But I'm sure everything is going to be alright. It's still early in your labor, and-"
Maria cried out and squeezed Artie's hand so tightly her knuckles turned white.
"Señor Gordon," her husband pleaded, "you have to help her. She trusts you. Please, señor."
Artie glanced at Jim and began rolling up his sleeves. "Take him out into the parlor car Jim and give him a shot of brandy. Better make that two."
Jim nodded and steered José out of the sleeping compartment.
The afternoon light was beginning to fade by the time Artie returned to the parlor car. Washing his hands in the basin of hot water he had requested to be kept handy at all times, he sighed, heavily.
José had fallen asleep in a chair and Artie motioned silently to Jim.
"I think the baby is in the wrong position," he said softly. "Poor Maria is tearing herself apart trying to give birth. We need a doctor, pronto."
"But the nearest town is the rail head at Coburn Station," whispered Jim, urgently. "That's got to be at least ten miles down the line from here. In this mountainous terrain and with the bad weather it might as well be fifty."
"Jim I'm worried she's going to need more help than I can give her. I'm not a doctor."
"Artie, you've patched me up plenty of times and I'm still here to tell the tale."
"Yeah, but that was pretty straight forward stuff, Jim. Extracting bullets, treating fevers, antidotes to poisons, the female anatomy is real different. All I have is a medical book from our library and a few diagrams. That's not going to be enough."
"Then we must go for the doctor, señores," said José, who was now awake and standing at Jim's elbow.
Jim looked into the young man's worried face and nodded. "Alright. I'll go."
"No, señor," said José, "we will both go."
"He's right, Jim," replied Artie. "Two of you will have a better chance of making it through the storm. If something happens to one of you the other can go for the doc and circle back on the return trip."
Jim threw up his hands in surrender. "Fine. We both go. Can you ride?" he asked the slender youth at his side.
"Sí, Señor West," Jose replied proudly, puffing out his thin chest. "I was a vaquero when I was young."
"Young?" Jim snorted. "What? When you were five?"
Jose grinned, making his face look even more boyish.
A single, feeble ray of sunlight broke through the flurries and storm clouds as Jim and José led the horses out of the stock car. Artie watched from the platform as Jim swung into the saddle, reining in his black stallion, Ace, who pranced and sidled sideways as if actually looking forward to a jaunt in the snow. José mounted Chief, and to Artie's astonishment, whirled the usually placid paint gelding around in a circle and made him rise gracefully onto his hind legs. Tossing Artie an almost jaunty wave, the youth sent Chief plunging into the snowdrifts as Jim and Ace scrambled to catch up.
"Unbelievable," muttered Artie with a smile, watching the pair disappear into the white curtain of snow.
As Artemus turned to go back inside, Orrin Cobb came walking back to the platform. "What's going on, Orrin?" Artie asked, seeing the look of concern on the engineer's face.
"Sorry to tell you this, Mr. Gordon, but the snow's drifted too deep on the tracks ahead. The piston is fixed, but we can't make any headway right now. Its comin' down too hard for the boys and me to try and shovel off the tracks to get some purchase, so it looks like we're gonna be stuck here for the night, or at least until the storm passes."
Artie shook his head as he stepped back into the parlor car. That's wonderful, he thought, just wonderful.
Night in the high Sierras during a raging blizzard is a terrifying prospect, thought Artie as he listened to the wind howling around the Wanderer. When he'd stepped out onto the platform earlier to take a better look, he'd noticed the drifts starting to build around the train had reached past the train's axles.
And still, the snow continued to come down without any sign of stopping.
Artie stoked the fireplace in the parlor car and the pot-bellied stove that heated the sleeping compartments, but he still fought cold shivers worrying about Jim and José riding unprotected through the killer storm. The ill-fated Donner Party had been stranded in a blizzard very much like this one not far from where the train was snowed in tonight, and the thought that his partner and Maria's husband could get lost in the white-out didn't do much to help his already frayed nerves.
Maria slept fitfully between wrenching contractions that left her drained and exhausted. Artie did what he could to ease her pain, but he knew if the doctor didn't arrive soon, it would be too late for both the young mother and her unborn child.
"Señor Gordon," Maria gasped. "I do not think that the doctor will get here in time."
"Hush, now, young lady," said Artie, as cheerfully as he could. "I won't hear any talk like that. James West is on the assignment and he never fails to get what he goes after. The doctor will be here soon. You just need to hang on and everything will be just fine."
Dipping a rag in a bowl of cool water, Artie gently bathed Maria's brow.
Jim, please hurry or this poor girl may not make it through the night.
"Artemus, please," Maria whispered. "The doctor is not here and you must help me. Now. "
"But Maria, I can't. . . I'm afraid. "
Maria's eyes were fever bright as she took Artie's hand in hers. "Do not be afraid," she said, smiling up at him. "Have faith. All will be well."
Have faith? How he wished it were that simple. And yet, as he gazed into Maria's dark, trusting eyes, Atremus felt a sensation of calm and peace unlike anything he had ever felt before. Suddenly, he was filled with a new strength and confidence.
Everything was going be all right. He knew what he had to do.
"Push, Maria! Push!"
The baby came into the world in a single, great rush and Artie grinned as he picked up the tiny baby boy.
"He's here, Maria! He's here! You did it!"
Maria smiled and lay back, her eyes closed, exhausted.
Artie gazed down at the baby in his arms and realized that there was something terribly wrong. The child had not cried out. It had not drawn a breath and was quickly turning blue.
"Oh, no!" he cried, softly. "Please God don't let this little one die before he gets a chance at life. Show me what to do to save him. Please!"
Then, Artie remembered something he hadn't thought of for many years.
It was a memory of how his father had saved a young boy who had fallen into a pond and drowned. By breathing his own breath into the boy's mouth, his father had continued until the lad coughed up water and began to breathe on his own.
But how had he done it?
Leaning over the motionless child, Artie took a deep breath, and then slowly, gently breathed into the baby's mouth and nostrils.
The child's abdomen rose and fell.
Was that a good sign? Artie didn't know, but he repeated the procedure once more, then again, and again.
Suddenly, the baby kicked and sneezed, then wailed as it drew its first unaided breath.
"Thank you, thank you," murmured Artie as tears of relief and joy chased each other down his cheeks. Wrapping the squalling infant in a warm blanket he handed the child to his mother.
"So," he said, "what are you going to name him?"
Maria gazed up at Artemus, her eyes shining. "He shall be called Jesús," she whispered, kissing the tiny dark head nestled in the crook of her arm.
Artie awoke to the sound of voices outside the parlor car.
Leaping up from the sofa where he had fallen asleep, he pulled open the door and peered out into the darkness. Jim, José and a tall man carrying a doctor's bag tramped through the snow toward the back of the train.
All three men looked cold and tired, but Jim grinned as Artemus ushered them inside. "We made it Artie," he said, "and in record time, too."
A few minutes later, Jim and Artie sipped on cups of freshly brewed coffee laced with brandy as the doctor and José visited with Maria and the baby.
"Sounds like you've had quite a night," Jim grinned after Artie finished telling him the tale of the birth of little Jesús. "All we had to contend with was a blizzard."
Artie smiled and took a sip of his coffee. "Yeah," he said, quietly. "You know, Jim, it was strange. I'd completely forgotten about my father saving that young boy. I hadn't thought about it in years. It's funny how it just popped into my mind like that."
"Well, sometimes things like that happen when you're under pressure," said Jim. "But then, I've always said you were something of a miracle worker."
"A miracle worker, huh? If you want to talk about a miracle, how in the world did you and José manage to get to Coburn Station and back with the doctor in less than six hours in a blizzard?"
Jim looked down into his coffee cup and shrugged. "Something funny about that too, Artie," he said. "When we got into town the doctor was out of his office on an emergency call. We had to go to the railway station to telegraph you we were going to be delayed, but while we were talking to the telegraph operator, this tall, blond gentleman came up to us and introduced himself as Doctor Gabriel. He said he was on his way to Reno, but he'd come with us to take care of Maria.
Jim stopped and stared off into space before continuing.
"It was strange, Artie, but on the ride back, the snow was coming down even more heavily than before, but everywhere we rode, there seemed to be a clear path. We were able to make even better time getting back to the train than we did riding into town. It was almost as if -"
The door leading from the sleeping compartments opened and the tall doctor came into the parlor car.
Artie jumped to his feet anxiously. "How are Maria and the baby doing, doctor?"
"Mother and child are just fine, Mr. Gordon" replied Dr. Gabriel. "Maria told me how you saved the child's life. Quite remarkable."
"James and I were just talking about that," said Artie. "Strange how something like that will pop in to your mind when you least expect it to."
The doctor smiled.
"Well," said Jim, with a yawn and a stretch, "since the crisis seems to be over, I'm going to get some shut eye. Doc, go ahead and grab a blanket from the storage compartment and bed down anywhere you like. Good night, all."
And with that, James West curled up on the window seat and promptly fell asleep.
Artie shook his head. "Jim can fall asleep anywhere."
The doctor laughed softly. "It's a gift," he replied, his unearthly blue eyes twinkling with amusement. "But you must be exhausted, too. It would be best if both of you got some rest."
It was true, thought Artie. He hadn't realized until that moment how very tired he was.
"Thanks, doc," he yawned. "I think I'll turn in, too."
And in a few moments, the darkened parlor car was filled with the sound of soft snoring.
Just before dawn, Artie woke with a start. The fire had burned low in the fireplace and he stoked the embers to bring up the heat.
Jim was still asleep on the window seat, but his blanket had slipped onto the floor. Quietly, Artie retrieved it and tucked it around his friend. "Thanks Artie," Jim murmured, sleepily.
Artemus grinned. "You're welcome, pal," he replied.
In the dim glow given off by the newly stoked embers, Artie glanced at the sofa and realized the doctor had not come in to sleep yet. Thinking perhaps he was still with Maria and the baby, Artemus went back to the sleeping compartments but was astonished to find both were empty.
A quick search only confirmed the obvious. They were gone. Maria, José, the baby and Dr. Gabriel, all of them . . . gone. Even the pillows and blankets were neatly folded on each bunk.
Almost as if no one had even been there at all.
"Jim! Come here. Hurry!"
In an instant, James West was wide awake and dashing to his partner's side. "What's wrong, Artie?" He glanced around the deserted sleeping compartments. "Where are they?"
"I don't know," Artie shrugged. "I just came in to check on Maria and the baby, and they were gone. No explanation, no note, nothing."
"Well, they can't have gotten very far," said Jim, pulling on his boots. "It's suicide to be out there in a storm like this with a woman and a newborn. We have to find them and bring them back."
Artie nodded. Striding across the parlor car, he tossed Jim his coat as he pulled on his buffalo hide jacket and jerked open the door.
A rush of cold air greeted the two agents as they stepped out onto the platform. Artie stepped off the stairs, his boots sinking into the deep, soft powder. The snow had finally stopped falling and the night was clear and unnaturally bright.
He glanced back at Jim, who shook his head. There were no tracks anywhere, just a wide expanse of pristine snow.
"That's impossible," said Jim. "The snow couldn't have covered their tracks so completely."
Moving to the stock car, they pushed open the door. Ace and Chief pricked their ears watching as Jim checked the stalls. He emerged a few moments later, scratching his head.
"There's no sign of them, Artie," he muttered, "It's strange. I took the last of the oats out of the feed bin when I fed the horses, but when I looked just now, it was full up to the top. And there is fresh hay piled in the corner of the car that I swear was not there this afternoon."
"Mr. West, Mr. Gordon!" Orrin Cobb tromped through the drifts towards them, waving a lantern.
"Hey, Orrin," called Artie, "What's going on?"
"It's a miracle, Mr. Gordon, a daggone miracle, that's what," replied the gruff engineer. "The tracks in front of the train are completely clear, with snow piled up either side, just as slick as you please, like it ain't never touched the tracks at all! Daggonedest thing I ever seen," he said, shaking his grizzled head.
Suddenly, Jim stopped and pointed to the sky. "Artie!"
The three men gazed up into the heavens awash with ribbons of rippling color and light.
"Well, will you look at that," Artemus murmured. "It's the aurora borealis, Jim. The northern lights! They usually aren't seen this far south, but it's not unheard of."
Jim stared up in wonder. "It's beautiful," he whispered.
"Look! Look there," exclaimed Artie, pointing to a blaze of light streaking across the eastern horizon.
James grinned. "It's a shooting star. Make a wish, buddy."
Artemus put his arm around his friend's shoulder. "I wish you a Merry Christmas, James," he said, smiling,"and a very happy new year."
"You too, Artemus," replied Jim with a grin as they walked back to the parlor car. "You too."