THE SMILE OF HANNAH DUBOIS
‘Laughter is a great peacemaker, Henry Lee, you know what I’m saying here? There is nothing quite like an ordinary everyday smile to brighten your way and some smiles are brighter than others, hard to beat a real honest to goodness silent smile?’ Dan Crow was talking through a mouthful of sonofagun stew and sourdough bread. The two men were sitting at a table in the dining area of Millie Tuck’s Restaurant just south of Dogbite’s Main Street listening to the wind driven rain battering the small glass windows.
‘Sure, I know what you mean, Crow.’ Henry Lee replied, pushing aside his empty plate and taking the makings from the pocket of his leather vest.
‘Then just what do I mean?’
‘You are, in your long winded, back water kind of way, trying to tell me that somewhere along the line you have reached the conclusion that most of us have had since we were suckling at our mama’s tit, that a smile is worth watching and can, in most circumstances, be a delightful and pleasing thing.’
‘Well, something like that. Pass the tobacco will you, I’m out. I was just trying to make friendly conversation is all because you are so damned miserable these days. You got a nice smile on you, Lee, twitches that goddamned awful moustache, makes your ugly face come alive. Trouble is though you don’t use it often enough, you take life too damned seriously is all I am saying. And what do you mean by it can be a pleasing thing, you ever see one that wasn’t?’
‘Maybe I have,’ Lee offered, ‘Maybe I have seen a smile where a smile does not belong.’
‘And where would that have been?’
Lee shoved the makings across the gravy stained gingham tablecloth. ‘I knew a woman one time lived in the scrub lands, West Texas. She was like the land around there, drier than a dried-up sand creek bed just like the rest of the folk who lived thereabouts. Dusty people all of them. She’d walk by a rattler and that rattler would slither away and hide. Dogs walked around her, cats hissed if she came into a room and the birds stopped singing every time she opened the cabin door.’
‘When was this?’ Crow asked.
‘When was that?’ Lee corrected.
‘Oh, long before we partnered up. I was just a pup working on Billy Bodine’s spread, helping out on the chuck wagon and the branding as we gathered a herd for the drive up from Texas to Abilene back when the railroad was first built and cows were really worth something.’
‘You go back that far, Lee, how old are you exactly?’
‘That makes no never mind, you were asking about smiles and I’m telling you about a smile so just shut up for once in your life and listen.’
‘Sorry.’ Crow said, firing the bummed quirly with a blue top match.
‘Anyway, she was the wife of an old Civil War veteran, Sam Dubois, they moved down to South Texas from Virginia, he only had one leg and half an arm…’
‘How come he had a half an arm?’
‘Do not ask and do not interrupt!’
‘I like to get the full picture is all, half an arm is unusual.’
‘Fact is he only had a half an arm and he was probably the shortest man I ever did see is all you need to know. They had two fat lazy sons that looked like they may have eaten a third child had there ever been one. They ran about a hundred or so head of scrub cattle which gave them the right to tack them onto the drive even though they was in poor condition on account of the lack of grazing around their two by four outfit which consisted mostly of rock, rattlesnakes, gila monsters, sand and scrub.
‘Hannah Dubois was a skinny, wrinkly, mean faced little woman with a look that could cut a man in half so’s he could never be put back together again. I only ever seen her smile that one time all the while I was there. Just that one smile early one dark morning when we was branding and her old man had found himself some corn whiskey and stumbled around the fire on his peg leg, tripped on a root and fell, the red-hot iron he was carrying slapped their Arrowhead brand onto the backside of the laziest and fattest of the two kid. He screamed a blue norther, the old man swore, the cow bellowed and she smiled. Just that one time, she smiled and her smile lit up the world like nothing I ever did see. I tell you, Crow, I thought I heard birds twittering and a band of angels singing. The whole day took on a new light and her face was radiant. I had never seen a smile like that in my whole life and I guessed I never would again. It was a truly beautiful thing to behold.’
‘Birds twittering and angels singing? Colourful. You ever see her again?’
‘That next spring the old man sent me up there on my own to collect whatever they had and bring them back for the drive. I wasn’t hankering for that chore but by then I was on the payroll as a cowhand so I saddles up and makes it out to that dust hole of an Arrowhead. She was there sitting on the porch in a rocker, just like the first time I seen her, face like doom, thinner than I remembered even. He was hopping around and seemed pleased some to see me. We set out there and then, cleaned out the coolies in two days and brought down twenty or so head of crow bait and branded them in the corral with me keeping him well away from the branding iron. All afternoon I could feel her looking at me but she was grim faced, setting there and never saying a word to either of us. I ate a cold silent supper with Mister Dubois, said goodnight and bedded down in the barn although they did offer me one of the bunks vacated by the sons when the pair of them up and hightailed it to California in search of good times and gold. They was sure enough backward them two boys, the rush was long since gone.’
‘Maybe they went into motion pictures like we did.’ Crow said, smiling.
‘I doubt it. Anyway, around six in the morning, just as the sun’s coming up she pokes me awake with the handle of a pitchfork and says she needs some help up at the cabin. Seems old Mister Dubois got himself a skin full of liquor that night after supper, tripped over his peg leg and fell down the coldwater well. I pull on my pants and goes to take a looksee. Sure enough, I can see him down there in the water clinging onto the bucket with his one arm wrapped around it and his hand holding hard on the rope. He don’t weigh much on account he is small and only has the one half an arm and one leg so I winds him up and hauls him over the side and man, is he stiff and deader than Dick’s donkey. She just looks down at him then up and me and asks me to bury him, just like that, flat out asks me to bury him in the soft ground back of the corral and offers me a dollar for doing it. Well I’m young and that’s a full day’s wages to me so I agree, gets me a shovel and digs a hole. She is still standing over the old man and has laid out a small tarp for his shroud. Trouble was he had such a grip on the bucket line I couldn’t get his hand free. While I’m thinking what is the best thing to do, she goes into the cabin and comes out with a ball peen hammer and smashes his fingers real hard several times, then peels away the rest of the broken hand and looks at me as if to ask why didn’t I think of doing that? I get the tarp around him and drag him over to the hole and I roll him in. I tell her I think he landed face down and should I get in the hole and roll him over? She tells me no, that’s the direction he was headed anyway.
‘And this is where it began again. Like a warm morning summer sunrise, first a glow on a distant horizon and then, slowly, the rim of the sun appears and that glow spreading slowly across the land but, in her case, it was the beginning of that same smile and the warmth spreading upwards through her skinny cheeks and up to her pale blue eyes. A smile to die for. Feeling a little awkward, I ask her if she wants to say a few words over her old man and she just keeps on smiling, shakes her head, turns and walks back to her rocker on the cabin’s stoop.
‘Well, I filled in the hole, found a short board of old lumber in the barn and stuck it end up over the grave as a marker figuring when she was over the shock of his passing she would write his name or something on it at a later time. I put my hat back on gathers up my gear, saddles the pony and gets ready to mosey the cattle back to where the drive is gathering. She is still sitting there smiling but the smile has changed some, no longer a smile really. Oh, the shape was right but it no longer reached her eyes and seemed set on her face, ghastly it was. Where there had once been brightness and light was only darkness. I can tell you I felt real bad about taking her dollar but I did and shook my head at the offer of breakfast thinking the sooner there was a lot of gone between me and Arrowhead, Hannah Dubois and the late Mister Dubois, the happier I would be. I tell her I could write on the marker for her or she could do it later but she just fixes me with that awful grimace and tells me she and God knows where he’s at and that is all that matters. Cold, just like that and still the face never changing, not even as she spoke.
‘I got her to sign the release to sell her cattle in Abilene and gave her the receipt the boss had given me to give her once I filled in the details. She did what I asked and then just stared at me that damned smile fixed on her face like some kind of death mask, you know, like the ones you see in them travelling shows that come to Bailey in the summertime. Like I said, the shape was right for a smile but it just wasn’t a smile anymore. It was a kind of a nasty empty thing. I told Billy Bodine about what had happened when I got back to the herd and he just nodded and said not to worry, she was a crazy woman anyway.’
‘You ever see her again?’ Crow asked.
‘No, wild horses wouldn’t get me back there. I quit the drive in Abilene and headed on out here to Wyoming, never would go back there, not ever. I figure she is likely still sitting there in that rocker with that smiling mask fixed on her dead face thinking about old Mister Dubois face down in the ground with no name on his marker and just the thought of it sure enough gives me the shivers.’
Dan Crow thought about that for long while and said quietly, ‘I guess like most things in life, a smile is as you find it and it don’t always fit and it don’t always mean that what you see is really what it is.’ Crow said.
‘You are sure enough right about that, old horse.’ Henry Lee said.
Copyright 2017 Chris Adam Smith