Travis was in the barn milking the cow when his father shouted from the front of the house, “Travis! Get the shotgun! Come see what I caught!”
Travis ran through the backyard and into the kitchen, where his mother was frying squirrel and green tomatoes. “Travis, what is it? What’s all the excitement?”
“I don’t know, but it sounds important,” he said hurrying past into the living room, where his father’s double-barrel twelve gauge hung in a gun rack. Travis pulled the gun down and loaded it from a box of shells in the rack’s drawer. He ran out onto the open front porch and saw his father holding his Winchester rifle on a middle-aged black man in a business suit holding his hands in the air.
Travis’s mother ran out behind Travis. “Cyrus,” she said to Travis’s father, “what’s going on?”
“Get back in the house, Lizzie,” said Cyrus.
Lizzie wrung her hands and stifled a tear. She feared what she suspected was about to happen, but she knew what would happen if she didn’t obey, and backed up quietly into the living room to watch from behind the screen door.
“Get the shotgun on him, Travis,” said Cyrus.
Travis held the shotgun at his hip and pointed it toward the man’s head.
“Look, Mr. Whitfield, I don’t want any trouble—”
“How do you know my name, Sambo?”
“It’s on your mailbox: Cyrus Whitfield. And my name’s Roger Thompson—”
“You’ll answer to Sambo, boy.”
Roger took a deep breath. “I don’t want any trouble. I just wanted to use your phone. I hit a deer up the road and I just wanted to call my brother in Richmond so he could come and pick me up. That’s all I wanted.”
“What are you doing on this road, Sambo?”
“I’m on my way to my new job. Mr. Smith of the Peabody mine brought me in to revamp the coal-washing equipment.”
“Another damned nigger taking a white man’s job. You black son of a bitch. Travis, this is why we can’t have niggers around here. Good white men can’t get a damned job to save their lives and Smitty hands ’em out to niggers he has to bring in from outside—”
“It’s just a temporary job, Mr. Whitfield. I’ll be going back—”
“I wasn’t talking to you, Sambo! I was talking to my boy.” Cyrus paused. “See, Travis, I can’t do anything about Smitty, but I sure as hell can keep one more nigger from moving into the county. We didn’t have this problem before Kennedy was president. If we can get Nixon out and get Wallace in, things’ll be different. Yes, sir, things’ll be different.”
Cyrus paused as he decided what to do. Travis noticed that sweat was beading on Roger, who stared trembling but unblinking into Cyrus’s eyes.
Travis shivered, but he wasn’t sure whether it was because of the chill morning air or because for the first time he was seeing an evil side to his father that he previously only suspected of existing. Travis didn’t want this day to turn into something ugly. It had started as another beautiful Kentucky morning with a light mist lingering in the hollows and dew sparkling on the grass and fallen leaves. And there had been that quiet that comes with the falling of the leaves and fills the November air. It was good weather to stay wrapped in a down comforter on a feather bed and watch first light seep over the hills and through the surrounding woods to filter around the curtains. It was not a day for evil.
Holding his Winchester on Roger, Cyrus circled to behind him and said, “Walk.” Roger walked ahead with Cyrus following closely behind and Travis alongside.
Roger started toward the steps up to the front porch, but Cyrus said, “I don’t allow niggers in my house. Go around.” Roger turned left and headed around the corner.
“Where are we taking him, Pappy?”
“If these coons are going to steal our jobs like coons steal our eggs, I’m going to treat them like coons. Stop here, Sambo.”
They stopped in front of a cattle gate in the fence surrounding a pasture about a hundred yards across. Beyond the pasture two hills joined at their far ends to form a wooded valley two miles long with three vertical sides about two hundred feet in height.
“See that saddle at the far end of the valley, Sambo?”
“Smitty and his whole family live about a mile beyond that saddle. I’m going to give you until you reach the fence on the far side of this field and then I’m going to do a little coon hunting. If you make it to their house, you live. I’m not going to set the dogs on you. They would kill you before I ever had a chance to get close. Now run! Run, Sambo! Run!”
“Coon-hunting,” thought Travis, “that’s why he’s doing this. He loves to coon-hunt.”
Roger quickly scaled the gate, jumped down onto the other side, and ran. Travis noticed Cyrus was grinning. Travis turned back to watch Roger sprint almost across the field before he slowed, stumbled, and fell. He picked himself up and continued.
Cyrus watched Roger intently and said, “You’re fifteen, Travis. It’s time you became a man.” Cyrus reached into the front pocket of his bib overalls and pulled out a chaw of tobacco and bit off a hunk. He chewed for a few seconds and then spit and grinned. “You’re going to kill that nigger today.”
“Do it, boy! I’ll whoop your ass good, if you don’t.”
Travis watched Cyrus grinning for a few seconds, wondering what he was up to, and then gazed at the saddle everyone called “The Devil’s Backbone”. Travis knew it well. He often used it as a bridge when squirrel-hunting the flanking hills.
The Backbone was a half-mile of barren limestone only fifty feet in width with nearly vertical sides and a few boulders and a few clumps of pines dotting its top. The left end of the Backbone abutted a smooth cliff forming the side of the left hill. Two narrow, steep, twisting paths led up the Backbone from this side, one to Travis’s left and the other about a quarter mile from that to the right, not far from where the Backbone climbed steeply and became the hill forming the right side of the valley.
Only one narrow, twisting path led down the cliffs into the valley on the other side and that was a hundred feet or so further to the right. Its trailhead was hidden behind two boulders and a pine tree. Unless you knew where to look it could not be found. Then the reason Cyrus sent Roger in that direction dawned on Travis; Roger would be trapped.
Travis knew the Devil’s Backbone for another reason besides going there to hunt squirrels. That is where he went to meet Thomasina Smith in secret. Her dad, Ernest Smith, “Smitty” as everyone called him, was superintendent of the mine where Cyrus worked. Cyrus had no love for blacks to begin with, but when the mine owners had brought in Smitty from outside the mountains to run the mine, distaste turned to hatred.
Travis knew Thomasina from school. Because of the power the Smiths held in the community by virtue of Smitty’s position, the Smith children were tolerated in attending the same school as the white kids. Now that the oldest Smith children, like Thomasina, who was now fifteen, were past puberty, the white parents started watching their children’s social lives more closely and signs of discontent were arising.
Travis had become involved with Thomasina, when he came up to the Backbone after school one day in late September. Travis had to study for a test and had needed to get away from the house, where his mother and father were fighting. As he was reading under a pine, he heard someone climbing up the path from the Smith’s house. Travis was surprised to see Thomasina making her way up the slope. By coincidence, her family had been fighting when she needed to study for the same test.
Travis did not know what it was about Thomasina that appealed to him, nor did he understand what she found attractive about him. Both being fifteen, such considerations were unimportant to either. Each liked the way the other smiled, laughed, walked, talked, looked, and was different from anyone else he or she had met, and that was enough. For Travis, however, the appeal went a step further. Thomasina was the first black girl he had ever seen and from the time he first saw her at school, her skin, which was almost as dark as the coal for which his father and community had slaved their entire lives, fascinated him. It was something from a world outside the mountains, something he had never experienced, something he wanted to touch and did not know why.
The first few times they met they only studied, but soon they were joking with each other and laughing and sympathizing and touching and holding and kissing and, finally, making love. Travis never missed a date with Thomasina, when he could get away from the yoke of his parents and from his chores and enjoy life. Travis and Thomasina tried to ignore each other in school, so that no one would know they were in love, but eventually they heard the rumors spreading about them.
Up to now, it had been their good luck that none of the rumors had made it to Cyrus. Travis knew that Cyrus, if he found out about Thomasina, would probably thrash him until he was almost dead and then disown him. Nevertheless, Travis met Thomasina on the Backbone as often as he could.
When Roger started climbing over the far fence, Cyrus said, “C’mon, boy,” and started running across the field. Travis followed close behind. When they reached the fence, Roger was long gone into the woods. “Watch up that slope to the right and I’ll watch this one,” said Cyrus, “ and we’ll make sure he doesn’t double back.”
Cyrus and Travis hurried along a deer path up the middle of the valley. A hundred yards into the woods, Cyrus held up his hand for Travis to be still. Cyrus listened to the sounds of the woods while scanning the terrain on all sides. “Be quiet, boy,” Cyrus whispered, “I want to see if I can hear him breathing. He must be tuckered out now.” While he listened, Cyrus studied the path ahead and then pointed to it. “See those leaves on the path? See how they’re stirred up, while the others are flat? He ran this way. He’s going straight to the Backbone. C’mon, but keep an eye on your side of the valley.”
Travis followed, watching the slope to the right. With the leaves fallen, Travis could see through the undergrowth and far up the slope. The valley had been logged out at least three times in the past hundred years leaving a forest composed mostly of saplings and trees too thin for a man to hide behind. Boulders the size of log cabins had fallen from the cliffs and rested here and there on the slope. Cyrus had taught Travis good hunting skills and Travis peered as deep into the woods as he could, searching for the slightest movement, and ran his eyes along the outlines of the boulders and the larger trees, looking for any irregularity that might betray the top of a head or a foot or any shape a man might have. Travis stepped carefully through the dead leaves, brushing aside quietly any branches or saplings, making as little noise as possible, so that he could listen for Roger’s footfalls and labored breath in the morning stillness. Now and then when Cyrus stopped and listened, Travis closed his eyes and concentrated on listening, sorting out the sounds of the wind in the branches from the scurrying of squirrels in the treetops or playing in the leaves.
As they neared the end of the valley after a little more than an hour Cyrus froze and whispered, “He’s ahead and to the left.”
Travis listened, focusing his attention toward the path ahead. He could make out the faint rhythm of someone slogging through distant leaves while pushing aside the brush. Cyrus motioned for Travis to follow and pressed on.
As they neared the end of the valley, Travis noticed the cliffs gradually closing in while the trail became steeper. Halfway up the slope to the base of the cliff, Cyrus paused and listened. Travis could hear Roger’s footfalls coming from the left of the path ahead. Cyrus and Travis moved about a hundred feet farther and stopped and listened. They could hear Roger gasping as he stumbled along the base of the cliff above them and headed toward the left path.
“Travis, you take the other path and get to the top and hide. Once he’s on top, he can’t go left, there’s a cliff and no way up it. He’ll have to go right. I’ll follow him up and flush him toward you. You give him both barrels right between the eyes. Don’t fail me, boy. I’m giving you an opportunity I wish I had a long time ago.”
“You never killed anyone, Pappy?”
“No, but I wish I had. This is a lesson for you, son. One that’s very important and that you’ll never get in school. You can’t let people walk on you. You can’t let them push you around. Now and then you have to push back and do what’s right. Otherwise, you’re just not a man. Now, get up that path. We haven’t got all day.”
Travis hurried up to the cliff and ran along the path at its bottom until he came to the path to the top. He picked his way up the nearly vertical path grabbing onto small trees and jutting rocks with one hand while using his shotgun in his other hand as a walking stick. Halfway up he stopped and looked toward the other path. He neither heard nor saw Cyrus. Travis slowed his breathing by taking deep breaths through his nose and filling his lungs with air, and then he listened for Roger. He heard only the wind in the branches and a trickle of water somewhere in the valley.
Travis thought about what Cyrus said about being a man. Sometimes though, Cyrus seemed more of an animal than a man. Burly, muscular, he reminded Travis of a bobcat. Mammy sometimes said he was an animal. At times, usually in the mornings just after getting out of bed, she said it almost purring like a satisfied cat; mostly though, she spit it out with disgust during a fight after Cyrus had backhanded her. Those times were becoming more frequent as Cyrus drank more, moonshine mostly, bourbon when he could get it.
Travis knew that Cyrus was right. There were times when you had to stand up for yourself. You couldn’t depend on no one. It was a hard life—scraping by in the coalmines for little pay and risking black lung or losing a finger or arm or your life. No one gave you anything; you had to take what you needed.
Travis admired Cyrus, who had always been independent and tough. At sixteen Cyrus had left both home and school and started work in the coalmines. No one ever gave him anything. Although he didn’t have much, everything he owned he had earned with blood and sweat, but no tears. Cyrus never shed a tear. At his dad’s funeral and at his mother’s a few years later his eyes never became so much as moist.
Since then, when Cyrus and Travis and Mammy sat on the front porch in the evenings, Cyrus told more and more stories of when his pappy was growing up and he and the Klan used to lynch niggers passing through the county. Cyrus wished they could do that now. At those times his anger grew and he would have to take a drink and have a few cigarettes to calm down.
Mammy never said anything during those evenings. She would just sit and sew until Cyrus got everything out of his system. But after Cyrus went to bed, she would sit with Travis on the porch and talk for a long time. Mostly she would tell how life had been hard for her and Cyrus, but that underneath it all he was a good man, but you had to know him a long time before you got to see his good qualities. He never cheated on her. He usually came straight home after work and seldom drank with his buddies from the mill. He stood up for her when she was in an argument with someone else. He worked as hard as he could to earn a living, just as she did at the dry cleaners in town. And, most importantly, he tried to teach Travis right from wrong.
Even though Mammy had always taught Travis that killing was wrong, she also said that sometimes people had to do bad things if they were going to live. She was a good-hearted woman; everyone who knew her, including Cyrus, said so. She didn’t want to see harm come to anyone¾even to niggers. She didn’t see any harm in them. She wouldn’t have wanted Travis to marry one, but as long as they kept to themselves, she had no problems with them. When Cyrus wasn’t around, she even went so far as to tell Travis that what was said about niggers being equal to whites was true. She said they could be just as smart and as hard working as whites. But Cyrus was her man and she would stand by him when he started griping about the niggers. Travis knew that she hated to see Cyrus kill anyone, but that was because she feared Cyrus being caught and sent to prison more than seeing a nigger killed. Besides, in these mountains there were too many places to hide a body and the law never came out this far from town anyway. Travis wondered what she would think, if he killed Roger.
Travis continued up the slope. At the top was a large boulder with a small bush on top of it. Travis remembered this spot well; he and Thomasina had first made love here, but now Travis tried to put that out of his mind.
Travis could stand behind the boulder and the bush would hide his face, but he would still be able to see between its branches and watch in the direction Cyrus and Roger would be coming. Travis pulled back the hammers on the shotgun and laid the muzzle in a small spot of moss on the boulder underneath the bush. He placed the butt against his shoulder and sighted down the barrels. There was a small clump of pines and bush on the ridge top several yards away blocking Travis’s view of most of the ridge, but through which Roger would have to pass. As soon as Roger appeared, Travis would have to swing the barrel only a few degrees to hit Roger anywhere this side of the trees.
While he waited and listened, Travis tried not to think about Thomasina and what he would tell her. Instead he thought about what Mammy said about Cyrus trying to teach him right from wrong. Cyrus was not a good teacher. If you did something the least wrong, he whipped you with his belt or anything else handy—sometimes with grandpa’s old razor strap. Sometimes he slapped you so hard you fell to the ground. Travis had known good teachers at school. They were patient and quietly explained things to Travis. They whipped only the rowdy kids and most of the time sent them to the principal’s office for that. Cyrus never explained anything. He just said to do this or that and if you didn’t get it right the first time you paid the price. As Cyrus got older, he got meaner and beat Travis harder. Travis hated to think about what would happen if Cyrus found out about Thomasina. Cyrus was a mean old man getting meaner every day and Travis was going to be stuck with him for the rest of his life, unless he moved out of the county and he didn’t foresee that. He loved the mountains and wanted to stay where his friends were. Still, every time he came hunting on the Backbone, he often stood in this very spot gazing over the mountains and wondering what lay beyond the horizon.
Just then the bushes rustled and Travis hunched lower behind the boulder. Roger staggered out from the clump of trees. He was gasping for breath and sweat had soaked his now tattered and dirty suit. He was exhausted; he could hardly lift his eyes from the ground. Travis stepped out from behind the boulder with the shotgun aimed at Roger’s forehead. Roger didn’t know Travis was there until Travis said, “Stop.”
Roger halted, gasping, and looked Travis in the eyes. Travis could see the veins in the milky whites and he could see the perspiration dripping from Roger’s forehead and into his eyes, but he could not see fear. Roger said nothing; he only stood and sweated and tried to catch his breath.
“Aren’t you going to beg for your life?” asked Travis.
Roger said nothing. He continued staring Travis in the eyes.
“Aren’t you going to beg for your life, boy?”
“I’m not a boy. I’m a man. Kill me, if you’re going to, but I won’t beg. I’ll see you in hell first.”
Travis held the shotgun on Roger for what seemed like a long time to both. Then the bushes rustled behind Roger and out stepped Cyrus. He pointed his Winchester at Roger’s head and moved to one side to get out of the line of Travis’s fire.
“Kill him, boy,” said Cyrus.
Travis did not move. He just continued sighting down the two barrels.
“What are you waiting for, boy? Kill him.”
Neither Travis nor Roger moved.
“No.” Travis raised the muzzle and held the shotgun across his body.
“No? So help me God, when I get you down to the house, I’m going to beat you like you’ve never been beat. What’s the matter with you, boy? Kill the nigger!”
“No. And I’m a man—not a boy.”
“You’re shit when I get through with you, boy.” Cyrus raised his rifle, sighted down his barrel, and pulled back the hammer with his thumb. “I’ll kill the nigger myself.”
“NO!” Travis leveled the shotgun toward Cyrus and Cyrus swung his rifle to bear on Travis, but Travis fired first and sent Cyrus flying backwards with a blast from both barrels. Cyrus’s Winchester fired into the air and clattered down the cliff. Travis looked at Cyrus sprawled on the rock and noticed the red splattered down the ridge in the direction of the house. “All I can do is tell Mammy the truth,” he thought. He then took his shotgun by the muzzle and flung it into the valley.
Roger, trembling, walked over. “I’ll tell the sheriff what happened. You were trying to save me and it was self-defense.”
Travis shuddered and wiped away the tears that were welling up. “Yeah. Then I had better start looking for a new place to live.”
Roger started walking toward Travis’s house, but Travis spoke up. “Come on. Let’s go this way—to the Smiths—Mr. Thompson.”