Queen of Diamonds

I delight in masques and revels. ~ William Shakespeare

It was cold, bitter cold. Cold enough to sear a man's lungs when he breathed in, cold enough that the snow underfoot squeaked when it was trod on. The Kid did not linger on the siding but went back into the dingy funk of the shack where a handful of passengers and crew waited for the tracks over the pass to Pendleton to be cleared.

Two soldiers, sozzled and slovenly, sprawled against one wall. A drummer snored from his corner. Through a door at the back of the room he could hear one of the railroad agents, slamming desk drawers and moving his chair around. It was only slightly warmer inside. A small stove at the other side of the room made a gallant attempt at producing heat but didn't do much more than add to the smell.

The lone female passenger sat on the bench behind the stove. There was a book in her hands, but he couldn't tell if she was reading. She certainly wasn't turning the pages very often. A dark tweed ulster covered her from the fur tippet at her neck to a pair of slender little ankles, and a veil was pulled down over her face, but instinct told him she was young.

She hadn't spoken to anyone since boarding the train in Salt Lake City, and the porter, after the Kid slipped a silver dollar into his hand, was able to tell him that she was a foreigner and didn't know any English. It was the porter's opinion - thrown in for free - that she was a daisy.

She was tapping her toes against the floor, probably to keep the circulation going, and after a while she got up and walked to the door and slipped out. She'd be back soon, he thought. Nobody was going to stay out in that freezing air for very long. Curiosity and boredom drove him to pick up the book she left on the bench.

"Splen-dewers et misers days cordy-zanies," he read out painfully. He sat down and puzzled through a few pages. It was a pretty, elegant book, with a heavily embossed leather cover. He was about to start looking for pictures when she came back in. Some imp of deviltry drove him to raise the book and hold it in front of his face.

"M'sieu!" It was a soft, small voice, and at that moment indignant.

The Kid screwed his features into a confused scowl. "Lucy-Ann dee Ruby-empire…"

"M'sieu, je vous en prie." There was the faintest suggestion of a laugh in her voice now.

"Reckon I slaughtered that and left it staked out on the prairie," he smiled at her. She started to smile back and then pulled the corners of her mouth down severely.

"Mon livre, m'sieu."

"I don't savvy the lingo but that's got to be 'Mister, I want my book back.'" He hazarded.

"Je vous en prie." Her tone became coaxing. He stood up and handed it over.

He was right; she was young. The veil was not thick enough to disguise a decided little chin, a nicely-shaped mouth, and very long lashes. He wasn't sure about the chin, but he thoroughly approved of the lashes.

"My name's Jones, mam'zelle. Thaddeus Jones." He tapped himself on the chest and drew the word out. "Jooones."

"Excusez-moi." She slipped past him and regained her seat.

"That ain't hardly fair, mam'zelle." He kept his voice low, not wanting to rouse the other men. "It'd be only friendly to introduce yourself."

He tapped his chest again. "Jones."

"Dupont. Félicie Dupont." She looked up at him through those lashes and he could have shouted from sheer pleasure. Her eyes were hazel.

"Fleecy dewBong? "

She smothered a chuckle and bit her lip, forcing her mouth back into prim and proper lines.

"We'll have t'think of somethin' else, Fleecy's a da - beg pardon, mam'zelle, darned funny name for a lady. Makes you sound like a poodle dog." He sat down beside her.

"We've got a long wait ahead of us- these railroad jaspers won't have us out of here before mornin'. I don't suppose you'd care to learn how to play poker?'' He looked at her hopefully.

"Pokaire?" She raised the veil, just to the level of her eyes.

"It's a card game." He reached into his coat and pulled out the deck he kept squirreled away in an inner pocket.

She looked doubtful.

"All right, not poker then. How about blackjack? It's easier for a beginner."

He hooked one foot around the rung of a nearby chair and pulled it over. "You got any paper an' pencil, mam'zelle?"

He pantomimed writing on his palm, and she gave a murmured exclamation and opened the bag that hung from one wrist. He accepted a slip of paper and a slim gold pencil.

"The idea is to keep drawin' cards until they add up to twenty-one," he began. "The Queen, now, she's worth ten."

He turned up a card and a dark-eyed queen of diamonds smiled saucily up at him. He wrote the number 10 on the paper. "Looks kind of like you, don't she?"

He cast a surreptitious look at her. She was small and neatly put together and now that her veil had been tucked up, he could see a piquant, three-cornered face. No one would call her pretty, exactly, but she managed to give the impression that if she liked you, life would be a series of pleasant surprises.

He shuffled the deck and began to deal the cards using the chair seat as a table, and she leaned forward to watch him.

"I can't make 'em do tricks like my partner can. Wish you could see him with a poker deck, mam'zelle." He stopped himself. "Well, no, I don't. I don't need him around when I've got a girl I'm tryin' to impress. He's slick, he is."

She cocked her head. She looked like a little cat, he thought, bright-eyed and playful.

"Maybe I shouldn't say that. He's good at what he does, though. He's my cousin. We grew up together." His voice trailed away and there was a moment's silence.

"When our folks were…after they were gone, he took care of me. They sent us to a home, and I reckon I'd have died there but for him. He stole food for me, kept me from the worst of the beatin's. And when he decided it was time to leave there, he took me with him."

He cleared his throat. "But that was a long time ago. Well now…pair of treys and a lady! Let's see what I dealt myself. A jack and a nine. Reckon this one's mine, mam'zelle. Better luck next time."

They played, and at first she lost. When she finally began to win, she would laugh, a bubbling little sound, and he started cheating to let her win more often. Eventually his efforts became blatant and she laid her hand over his and frowned.

"Non." The monosyllable was as determined as her chin.

"All right, mam'zelle. I reckon I can play fair for you."

The soldiers and the drummer slept on. The railroad agent came out of the office, looked at them with a profound lack of interest, and disappeared back into his haven. Occasionally a gust of wind would come through the walls of the shack like a terrier after a mouse and they unconsciously drew closer together.

"Not very homey, is it?" He stood up to open the stove door and throw in another handful of coal. "Somehow a fire should make a place like home. I'm one to talk - I ain't had a home since I was shirt-tail kid. A home and a warm fire waitin', that's for other men. Not me."

She regarded him gravely.

"I killed a man. Shot him dead in a gunfight over somethin' that seemed mighty important at the time. He was fast, but I was faster." The Kid's voice was bleak. "That's my trouble - I'm always faster. People are lookin' for me, for that…an' for other things. I can't even call myself by the name my parents gave me."

"It's like the last piece of them is gone now."

"Somebody said to me once that a driftin' man is like a wolf. You hear him howlin' off in the hills and then one day you don't hear him no more. I reckon I'm that wolf. One of these days, they'll catch up with me." He gave her a lopsided grin that belied his bitter words. "My partner's been pretty good at watchin' out for us, but a man can't stay a fugitive from the law of averages forever."

She was leaning forward, looking concerned, almost as though she understood what he was telling her. Her eyebrows pulled together and there was a little line between them.

"Don't you make sad faces on account of me, mam'zelle. I ain't worth it. I ain't been worth it since the day I stopped carin' how far down I'd gone."

He gathered the cards together and dealt another game. They played on into the night, until she could barely keep her eyes open and he took pity on her, pushing the chair away and tucking the deck back into his pocket.

"You want to go to sleep, mam'zelle, go ahead on. I won't bother you."

She gave him a puzzled looked and he put his palms together under one ear and tipped his head to the side, pretending to snore. She nodded and leaned back. After a few minutes her breathing evened out and she began to slowly slide down the wall away from him.

He carefully put one arm over her shoulder and pulled her against his coat. She murmured something indistinct and slept on.

When dawn broke she was still nestled against him. The Kid reached up and smoothed back a lock of dark hair that had fallen down over her face. She stirred against his shoulder. Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled at him sleepily, and he felt a strange grip in his chest.

"Don't look at me like that, mam'zelle," he whispered, and his voice was heavy with longing. "Gets a man to thinkin'."

He sensed her stiffen, and he tightened his clasp a little.

"Thinkin' maybe he could do worse than wake up every mornin' and see you there beside him."

She tried to pull away from him and a suspicion began to creep into his mind.

"I reckon if I'm goin' to kiss you, I'd better do it now while ever'body else is still asleep," he said, deliberately.

She tore herself from his arms and shot over to the other side of the bench. He rose to his feet and loomed over her. He took her chin in his hand and forced it up, forced her to look at him.

"You speak English," he accused her angrily. "You've been listenin' to me all night an' you've understood every word I said."

Her guilty blush betrayed her. He turned on his heel and went out into the cold.

He stood on the edge of the siding, eyes squinting against the early-morning glare off the snowfall, cursing himself for a fool. Damn you for a chucklehead, he thought. Cuttin' yourself open for a total stranger. He tried to remember all he'd told her.

He heard the door to the shack open and close, and sensed her come up behind him.

"I am so sorry," she said, after a moment. "What I did was unforgivable, but I hope I can make you understand."

The line of his shoulders was set and uncompromising. She waited for a reply and when none came she continued. There was not even a trace of an accent in her voice.

"My name really is Felicity Dupont. Mrs. Georges Dupont, I should say - I'm a widow. I was supposed to be travelling to Portland with a friend but she fell ill at the last minute and I had to come on alone. The first day out, a stranger tried to strike up an acquaintance and I just didn't want to be bothered fending him off. So, I pretended I couldn't understand English. "

"I know it sounds silly, but it worked. I decided that for the rest of the trip I would just be a poor stupid foreigner and that way I would be left alone."

"I reckon I can't blame you for that," he admitted.

"But it was my fault for not stopping the charade with you. It's just that I couldn't think of how to do it." Her voice softened. "And after a while I … I didn't want to."

"Must've been hilarious, listening to me run my mouth off," he said sarcastically. "Quite a joke."

"Some might call it a joke," she agreed. She laid one gloved hand on his sleeve and gently tugged on it until he turned to face her.

"But - considering that I've just spent twelve hours with a man who told me the truth and nothing but the truth for the entire time? - I'd call it more of an event. I don't think there are many women who have had that privilege."

Despite himself, a grin began to quirk up one corner of his mouth. "I reckon you know all my secrets now, Mrs. Dupont."

"Not at all, Mr. Jones. I have another confession to make - I'm terribly deaf, sometimes."

He pondered the statement and decided it was, after all, an olive branch.

"So all them pretty speeches I made you, you didn't hear?"

A demure twinkle was in her eye. "If you're traveling as far as Portland, could be you'll have the chance to say them all over again."

He took her hand and slid it into the crook of his elbow, covering it with his large one. "They say practice makes perfect."

"That they do, Mr. Jones. That they do."