The Devil’s Backbone

Bill Wittliff’s inventive first novel is the story of a boy’s quest to find his missing mother in the anything-can-happen frontier of the 1880s. In this exclusive excerpt, we enter the treacherous world of our hero Papa, Texas’ own Huckleberry Finn.

The Devil's Backbone

Oh listen here, Papa said, it was still a wild and wooly Country back then. Why it wadn’t nothing to hear a Panther scream in the night or to have to go run a Bear out a’the corn crib with a stick or a Pitchfork and ever once in a while, he said, you might see some poor o’broke down Inyin passing through with a raggedy o’bundle cross his back headed down South to Old Mexico or somewheres else. This was in the 1880s and Papa was talking about the world along the Blanco River in the Hill Country of Central Texas. Old Karl, his father, wadn’t much on anybody just sitting around, not if they were old nough to work. And old nough to work, Papa said, started bout the time you could get around on you own two feet So, he said, ever morning at Sun Up Old Karl’d lift me and my Big Brother Herman up on this o’Swayback Horse we had name a’Molly and send us off with the Cows to make sure they didn’t stray moren a mile or two from the House while they was grazing. Soon as we was off a ways we’d climb down off o’Molly, Papa said, and just walk along with the Creatures chunking rocks to keep em from taking directions of they own. One day we heard Something stomping round in the Brush over yonder. Something big. Maybe even moren one Something. I said What’s that yonder, Papa said. Herman said It’s Something gonna eat you up. I was just a little Boy but I knew when my Brother was teasing me so I said No they ain’t nothing in there gonna eat me up. Herman said Well go look you don’t believe me. So I picked up a rock and walked over there to the Brush. I don’t hear nothing I said, Papa said. Well go on in there and take you a look you little Sissy Baby Herman said. I threw my rock instead then took off a’running when here come two big o’Longhorn Bulls a’charging out a’the Brush right after me. Up a tree me and Herman went fast as we could go, Papa said, them Bulls just a’hooking at us. Then they went to bellering and snorting and kicking the ground up and all our Cows run off in ever which direction and they wadn’t one thing we could do bout it from up that tree. After a while them Bulls went a’walking on off but fore we could get down out the tree here come this Cowboy a’riding up on his Horse and wanted to know why in the Hell we was messing round with his Bulls and what the Hell was our damn Cows doing on his land anyhow? No Sir this ain’t your land here, Herman said, it’s everbody’s land. No not no more it ain’t the Cowboy said, Papa said. He said he had it all leased up from the Govment now ever Inch of it and we better run go tell our Daddy to get his Live Stock off his Land fore he decided to take the whole damn Bunch in somewheres and sell em for his trouble.

We run right on home, Papa said, and told Old Karl what the Cowboy said. He give us each one a good Whupping for letting his Cows run off like that then took down his Big Gun and said Well I’m gonna go see bout this. A couple a’days later me and Herman come up on them two Longhorn Bulls at a waterhole. They was both dead with a bullet hole in they Heart, Papa said, what Herman said was a case a’the Lead Poisoning. 

They was both dead with a bullet hole in they Heart, Papa said, what Herman said was a case a’the Lead Poisoning.

Our daddy was a Horse Trader, Papa said, Old Karl’d rope Wild Horses out a’the Cedar Brakes long the Blanco River til he had him a good little bunch say bout thirty forty head then me and him’d loose-herd em from this town to the next Trading and Selling as we went and Camping long the way. Sometimes we’d be down to maybe just a Horse or two, he said, Other times we might have us moren a hunderd but Old Karl wouldn’t turn for Home til he’d sold or traded away ever last Horse we had save o’Molly who pulled the wagon. That’d take months on some trips, Papa said, and I did all the Choring long the way while Old Karl set back and smoked on his pipe. Do this Do that Get over here Get over there Hurry it up Hurry it up That’s how it went Morning Noon and Night, Papa said. I wadn’t no bettern some o’Slave to my own Daddy on them trips and they wadn’t no fun in it at all. Except when they went through a town. Then Papa would sit on the tailgate of the wagon and make faces like he was a Loonie at the Town Boys on the boardwalk as Old Karl drove past. Then them Town Boys would jump and come a’running after the wagon a’throwing rocks at me, Papa said. Big rocks, he said, rocks that’d put a Knot on your head. But that was what I wanted, Papa said, cause one or two a’them rocks would always go right over me and conk Old Karl on the back a’his noggin and then Oh he’d go to yelling and cussing and shaking his fist and sometimes jump off the wagon and go to chasing them Town Boys down the street and I’d cover up my face with my hands so he couldn’t see me a’laughing like I sure nough was a Loonie.

db2Old Karl never made him a Horse Trade but what at the end he didn’t get him a little To Boot—a little something extra, Papa said. Sometimes it might be another Horse, or a few dollars, or maybe even the other fella’s hat or his pocketknife. It was a matter of pride, Old Karl said. No it wadn’t, Papa said, it was Greed but I didn’t never say nothing to Old Karl bout that.

One time, Papa said, Old Karl was in the Saloon cross the street having him a Bowl a’Beans, all the Boot he could get off a’some old hard-headed Dutchman he just traded out a’fourteen good Horses. They was two men at the bar Old Karl knew was a’watching him. He’d seen em a’watching him a little while ago too when he was out on the street trading that o’Dutchman out a’his Horses.

Get ready to cough tonight he said when he got back over to the wagon where I was keeping the Horses. Oh oh here comes Trouble I said to myself, Papa said.

First thing Old Karl did when we made us a camp down the road that day, he said, was to have me dig a deep hole. Then he dropped his Money Sack down the hole and I covered it up. What, you got a broke leg? Old Karl said. Now run go get some wood and set you a fire on top of it and I did, Papa said. That night we was setting there in front a’the fire eating our suppers when here come somebody our way through the Brush. Yeah, Old Karl said, here they come. I coughed, Papa said. Old Karl reached over and give me a thump on the back a’my head. You better do bettern that he said. I coughed again, Papa said, then went to wheezing like I couldn’t even catch my breath. That’s when them two Men from the Saloon stepped up in the firelight. Seen your Fire, the one with the Double Barrel Shot Gun said. What concern is it a’yours we got us a Fire or not, Old Karl said and give me a look to get a’going with the coughing So, Papa said, I went to coughing again. What’s wrong with your Boy there? the Other Man said. He was a Cowboy wearing a Hat so big I couldn’t even see his face, Papa said, but I sure did like that Hat. He caught him the Pox or something, Old Karl said, and I went to coughing again, Papa said. The Man hefted up his Double Barrels. You got some money on you ain’t you, he said, a smart o’SonofaBitch like you. I was coughing right along, Papa said, but drawing it out now so I could hear everthing was being said. I had me some money, Old Karl said, but I spent it all on a Doctor in town for this Boy here. Go dig in they pockets and see, he told the Man in the Big Hat. I coughed. No Sir I ain’t gonna take money might help a Sick Boy even if he got some, the Big Hat Man said. Let’s just ride on off from here.

But the Shot Gun Man raised up his Big o’Gun, Papa said, and said You and that Boy take your clothes off ever stitch and throw em over here to where we can see you got money on you or not. I won’t do it, Old Karl said. I won’t take my clothes off for you nor any other Man no matter you shoot me or not. Them two didn’t know what to do, Papa said. Well just have em turn they pockets inside out then and lets go, the Big Hat Man said. Old Karl give me a swat. You heard what he said he said, Papa said. I turned my pockets inside out. So did Old Karl, he said. They ain’t got nothing, the Big Hat Man said. Well then they a’hiding it somewheres else round here the Shot Gun Man said. Old Karl put another big stick on the fire. I wish I did have some money on me he said, Papa said, I’d buy me a Gun and some Bullets and shoot you two SonsaBitches deadern a god damn Anvil with it. Well Yes Sir maybe you would and maybe you wouldn’t the Shot Gun Man said then lifted up his Gun at us and give both hammers a cock back with his thumbs. Now Jack, the Big Hat Man said, put that thing down fore you get you self in the kind a’trouble you can’t no way get you self out of. And what kind a’trouble would that be, the Shot Gun Man said. Why this kind a’trouble right here Jack, the Big Hat Man said. And then Oh the Shot Gun Man seen in the firelight the Big Hat Man was a’pointing his own Pistol at him and it was cocked too but we never even seen him pull it out his pants or cock the hammer back neither one, Papa said. You wouldn’t shoot me the Shot Gun Man said, we’re Friends ain’t we. Yes Sir I am the Best Friend you ever had in your Life Jack, the Big Hat Man said then aimed his Pistol up at his Heart and said And I’m a’gonna be the Last Friend you ever had too you don’t move them Gun Barrels off a’that little Sick Boy there. Shoot the SonofaBitch, Old Karl said, and no man the wiser. But the Shot Gun Man seen the Pickle he was in and said I didn’t mean nothing by it and pointed down his Shot Gun and then off they went back in the Brush where they come from in the first place, Papa said, and Old Karl said Why ain’t you coughing like I told you to. Cause they gone now that’s why I said, Papa said. Old Karl Snaked his Eyes at me and said For all you know they a’setting right over there behind that tree yonder just a’watching to see if you really sick or not. They see you ain’t they liable to come back over here and shoot the both a’us just for the Hell of it. Then he reached over and give me a good hard slap cross my face, Papa said, and said You ever give one god damn thought to that. No Sir, Papa said, but I am now.

My momma was a Crier, Papa said. Her o’Granpa John Crier come down here to Texas with the first White People ever did come and then everbody else come on down behind em with the same idea, he said, and that was to take some Land off the Mexkins however much they could get. Oh them First Ones was as rough and tumble a’Bunch as any you ever did see, Momma said, and a little Loonie too to think they could make a Living down here where just bout everthing they was either bit you or stuck you or tried to yank your feathers off. Oh she said, Papa said, they was People went Chained-to-a-Tree Mad at the Horrors a’them old times. But not us, she said. Oh No Sir not us. We jumped in Texas all Hands and Feet right up to our Chin and when word come down the Mexkins was a’riding up from Mexico to take Texas back why Granpa John and my Daddy Andrew got right up from the supper table and took down they Guns and lit a shuck to San Hacinto to be with o’Genral Houston and the Boys when the Fighting commenced but first thing happened was some Crazy Fool ordered Daddy to the Baggage Detail back in Harrisburg but he run off from there early next morning to be with his Daddy John over at San Hacinto and wadn’t no surprise he did Momma said, Papa said, cause after all Great Granpa Honor Crier his self had limped through the froze ice and snow with Genral Washington to whup those Sissies in they white britches and another thing, she said, was given that the Family Motto was Blood Follers Blood it was just Fore Ordained that come Hell or High Water my Daddy was gonna be in on the Fireworks when the Texas Boys caught o’Sanney Anney taking him a little Siesta with some o’Gal in his tent and sent all them other Mexkins a’running and a’jumping and a’hollering cross the Country for they very lives.

Course, she said, if the Boys had a’lost that fight her Daddy Andrew and her Granpa John and everbody else too would a’got stood up against a near wall and shot to rags for they trouble. Instead they was all Heroes after that and Heroes for the rest a’they lives and Heroes still—all cept my Daddy, she said, who went a’running and a’whooping and a’shooting longside all them others but who the official papers said No he was back in Harrisburg on the Baggage Detail the whole time it took the rest of em to bobtail the Mexkins. We got us a big laugh out a’that Papa said his Momma said, cause Daddy Andrew had the proof he was at the Battle right there tween his legs everday. What she was talking about, Papa said, was a Mexkin Saddle he pulled off a’some dead Mexkin’s Horse right after the Fight that had Brass Nails and shiney Nickel Conchos on it. The same one he give over to Momma when she married our Daddy against his Caution and said If you ever find that man unsatisfactory you can ride this pretty Saddle back to here and we be glad to see you Darlin.

Old Karl’s idea of a Wife was somebody to Cook, Wash, and Wait on him, Papa said, but Momma didn’t fit no bill. She carried two pistols, smoked her a crooked pipe, and could shoot then skin a Buck Deer fore it ever drew last breath. But Oh she was tender when it come to Horses, he said. Catch one a’us Boys mistreating a Horse even o’Molly and she’d kick you halfway to Georgia and back. Old Karl on the other hand wadn’t tender bout nothing on this earth. Not one thing, Papa said. For sure not no Horses.db3

Amanda came down to the pens one morning when Old Karl was trying to break a Little Bay Mare with an ax handle and a rope. For her part the Little Bay Mare tried to bite him, kick him, run him over, kill him, but Old Karl was a veteran at such sass and gave her a good lick of the ax handle for each of her efforts. Papa and Herman got down to the pens just in time to see Amanda step through the rails and jerk the ax handle out of Old Karl’s hand. What the god damn Hell you think you a’doing, she said. You gonna kill her you keep a’hitting her like that. Yes by god I will kill her if she won’t gentle, Old Karl said and raised up his hand for his ax handle. Momma whacked him cross his fingers with it, Papa said. Oh she was Red Hot Mad, he said, they both was but they was mad at each other all the time anyhow so this wadn’t nothing new. Give me that Stick here, Old Karl said. Momma wadn’t about to. That ain’t how you gentle a Horse and you damn well know it, she said. Be damn I know it Old Karl said and reached for the ax handle again. Momma stepped back. I can gentle this Missy pretty as you please and don’t need no damn Stick to do it, she said. Old Karl’s face went Red as a Beet he was so mad, Papa said. The Hell you say Old Karl said and reached for the ax handle again. Yes, the god damn Hell I do say Momma said, Papa said, then reared back with the ax handle to hit him again if he went to grabbing for it. Old Karl give her the Snake Eyes but he didn’t want to get whacked with that ax handle again. Be damn you can gentle that Horse, he said then spit and walked on off.

Amanda waited until he was gone then picked up the far end of the rope and ever so slowly, ever so carefully led the Little Bay Mare out of the pens and down to the Creek. She was still panicky and shied at everthing, Papa said, but Momma led her out in the Creek bout belly deep and started whispering to her. She told her she was sorry she’d been bad mistreated and told her that nobody would ever hit her like that again. No not ever again, she said. Not ever again. Not ever Not ever Not ever again. It was like some o’chant, Papa said. Like some o’Inyin chant. Nooo Not ever Not ever Not ever again. Nooo Not ever Not ever Not ever again. In a few minutes the Little Bay Mare put her head down and drank.

She carried two pistols, smoked her a crooked pipe, and could shoot then skin a Buck Deer fore it ever drew last breath. But Oh she was tender when it come to Horses, he said.

Amanda petted her neck and cheek then scratched her between her ears and splashed water up on her back and in her face. The Little Bay Mare watched her but accepted it. Nooo Not ever Not ever Not ever again she crooned, then waved for the Boys to come on in. Herman wanted no part of it, but Papa skinned his pants off and jumped in.

Amanda patted the Little Bay Mare’s back and said Here climb on. Before Papa could say No, Amanda grabbed him around his waist and hefted him up. Oh the Little Bay Mare exploded, Papa said, bucking and pitching and just went to raising all kinds a’Hell and I went a’flying off in the Creek but Momma waved me back on. Didn’t hurt you none, didn’t hurt her none neither, Papa said she said. She’ll be too tired to buck here in a minute, won’t even want to no more and she won’t be hurt one bit. Momma was right and it was fun too, Papa said. Amanda helped him back on. He was laughing now then laughed some more when the Little Bay Mare threw him off into the water again. Then Herman jumped in with his clothes on. In just a minute we was taking turns getting bucked off in the water and just couldn’t stop laughing. Even that Little Bay Mare was having fun, Papa said, evertime she’d buck one a’us off Why she’d come back over and just stand there til Momma put the other one on. After a while she stopped her bucking altogether and we could ride her all over the place. It was the first time I ever seen Momma really laugh, Papa said. The last time too.

Old Karl was sitting out on the front porch smoking his pipe when they came back up to the pens from the Creek with the Boys riding double on the Little Bay Mare. He didn’t like seeing the four of them together like that. It made him think they’d taken a side against him.

Amanda had just drifted off to sleep that night when she heard the crack of a rifle shot coming from down at the pens. She knew what it meant. I did too, Papa said.

Bill Wittliff, BJ ’63, is a screenwriter and producer whose credits include Lonesome Dove and Legends of the Fall.

Text by Bill Wittliff and illustrations by Jack Unruh excerpted from “The Devil’s Backbone,” are used by permission of the University of Texas Press. Copyright © 2014. For more information visit


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