An Empire in the Wilderness.
Railroads are snaking their way through the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, bringing industry to the frontier.
Coal and lumber Barons, gamblers and conmen descend like a plague on Blue Mountain.
One man dreams of empire and a shining city in the wilderness. Others see their way of life swept away seemingly in an instant. Poor men rise and titans fall. Old feuds are settled and new alliances are formed.
And while the forces of civilization descend from the north and east, a new force sweeps through the west, battling for the hearts and souls of the mountain people. A new religion that some call madness, while others recognize as the only of salvation in a wounded land.
When she was eight, Vinetta found a small cove in a remote area of Blue Mountain that reminded her of home. Not Shanty Town, with its crude, crumbling shacks and weed infested lots, but the home she remembered from somewhere deep in her pre-Vinetta past. It evoked something ancient and Eden like, warm and green and soft. There was a steam running down from the mountain and its murmurings seemed to speak to her of love and loss. The stream turned into a water fall, forming a small pool surrounded by some of the most beautiful flowering trees of the forest. The trees that surrounded the pool were mostly pine, and she thought she could see the faces of forgotten lovers in the shadows of their branches.
She liked to imagine that she was the only person to ever swim in the pool. It was easy, because time seemed to stand still when she was there. But she knew it wasn't true; she'd seen signs, boot prints, cold campsites, the occasional piece of clothing left behind by some careless hunter. She hated these signs of intrusion on what she saw as her private world, hated the thought of rough men shooting the deer and small animals that had accepted her, welcomed her, to their little paradise.
She made her way through the trees and rocks, her bare feet effortlessly avoiding the thistles and rocks along the trail. She was a full grown woman now, but her love for the cove had not diminished. She came to the edge of the pool and let her faded cotton dress fall to ground, then lowered herself slowly into the cool water.
She had her mother's frightening beauty, deep green eyes, soft, light brown skin, lips that seemed to invite and repel at the same time. She could pass for white, or black, or Indian, and imagined that she was a little of them all. She was taller than most women, with wide hips, narrow waist, and breasts that men seemed to find attractive. But her crowning glory was the long, shining black hair that fell down to her hips in soft waves.
As she swam her dark hair trailed behind her. She dived under and stayed for more than two minutes before coming up for air. When she surfaced a water moccasin was swimming by, inches from her face. The snake didn't scare her; she knew him to be her friend. She watched as he slithered away and then lay on her back, her breasts pointing to the warm summer sun. She closed her eyes and floated, letting her mind drift to other worlds, other people.
An image of a tall man on a fine white horse came to her mind. Behind him, and for as far as the eye could see, stretched an expanse of grass cut so short and even it reminded her of a carpet she'd seen in a rich man's house. In the distance was a house bigger than anything she'd ever seen in her life. The tall man was smiling at her, or whoever she had been at the time, and the smile was warm and tender and hungry.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a harsh voice. “Mind if I join you?”
Vinetta opened her eyes and saw a young man standing on her dress. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder and two dead rabbits hanging from a rope around his belt. There was a lurid smile on his face.
“The water's awful cold,” she said, more irritated than frightened.
“I can take it if you can,” the young man said.
“There's a snake in here.”
The man laughed and said. “Honey, you'll have to do better than that. If there was a snake in there, you'd of been long gone.” Then he unsnapped his dirty overalls and let them fall to the ground. When he was naked, he smiled and said, “You can look away if you're shy.”
Instead of looking away, Vinetta stared at him until he grew uneasy. He dipped his toe into the water then pulled it out quickly, shouting, “Good Lord, that is cold. Why don't you come on out. My name's Floyd, what's yours?”
“Reckon I'll stay in for a while,” Vinetta said.
“Fine, here goes.” Floyd jumped high in the air and did a cannon ball into the middle of the pool. He went down and came back up and shouted, “Whoo weee that's cold.”
He swam toward her but she dived under, resurfacing on the other side of the pool.
“Now come on honey. Swim on over here and let's get to know one another,” he said.
“How long were you watching me?” she asked.
“Long enough to see all there was to see. Enough to where I'd like to get to know you better.” He swam toward her. She darted into the water but he was ready this time. He dived under, grabbing her by the waist. They surfaced together, Vinetta struggling to escape his grasp.
“Let go of me,” she shouted.
“Give me a kiss and I'll let you go.”
“No you won't. You might think you will, but after I kissed you you'd want something more. Something I ain't going to waste on the likes of you.”
“Waste, honey that's just silly. That's the great thing about being a woman. You can give a man all he wants and still have as much as you did before you started.”
He pulled her tighter against him, groping under the water for her breasts.
“Wait!” Vinetta shouted. She put her free hand against his cheek. Speaking in a whisper she said, “You've had a long day, ain't you?”
“Not too long for this.”
“I know, but it's been a long day and you're sleepy.”
“Well, maybe a little, but I can still...”
“I know you can. I just know you can do it good. But first I want you to think about something. It can be anything. A favorite place, or food, or the best time you ever had in your life.”
Floyd said, “Guyla.”
“Is Guyla your girl?”
Floyd shook his head slowly, his eye closed and a dreamy look on his face. “Guyla let me do some things to her. Had to give her a quarter. But she ain't near as pretty as you.”
“I want you to think about Guyla, about the time you spent with her.”
She kept her hand on his cheek and whispered, “Remember Guyla,” several times, until Floyd's eyes closed and his breath grew shallow. She put her hand on his head and lowered it into the water. One minute passed, then another. Bubbles rose to the surface around Vinetta's hand.
Someone shouted, “Floyd, where are you?”
She pulled her hand away and Floyd's head popped up out of the water. His eyes bulged open as he took in a big gulp of air. He clawed the water trying to get away from her. “You tried to drown me!” he shouted. “Billy, I'm over here. Help me out of this pool.”
Two more men emerged from the trees, each carrying a rifle.
“I might have known,” Vinetta said. “Wolves always run in packs.”
Floyd swam to where the other men stood. They each took an arm and helped him out of the pool. Billy said, “What happened little brother. Catch a fish that was too big for you?”
“She's a witch,” Floyd shouted, shivering from the cold. “She put me under a spell and tried to drown me.” Then it dawned on him. “I know who she is. She’s the daughter of Eleanor, the witch that smote that boy blind years ago.”
Billy laughed and said, “She didn't really strike nobody blind. We just said that to scare Seth. Don't tell me we've got another scaredy cat in the family.” He smiled down at Vinetta and said, “If you're a witch, you're the prettiest one I ever saw. Ira, why don't you go around to the other side so this fish don't get away.”
“I say we shoot her,” Floyd said.
“Shoot her? Hell, I can think of a hundred things I'd like to do more than that. Put you clothes on.”
“We ain't shooting her, and we ain't catching her,” Ira said. “Let's just go and leave her alone.”
Billy looked at him like he'd lost his mind. He was the biggest of the Branson boys, and was not used to having his orders questioned. “You'll do as you’re told, Cuz, or I'll give you the pounding of your life.”
“I ain't half your size anymore, so it ain't going to be as easy as it used to be.”
“It'll be easy enough,” Billy shouted. “If I didn't already have other things on my mind,” he cast a look at Vinetta,” I'd show you just how easy it is.” He started to unstrap his bib overalls.
“I ain't going to let you hurt her,” Ira said.
“You ain't got no say in the matter. You just find yourself a rock someplace and sit down and watch if you don't want to do it. And remember your place.”
“Yes, your place. You're just Aunt Serina's bastard son and don't you ever forget it.”
“I ain't likely to, being as one of you remind be most every day.”
Billy, much bigger than Ira, pushed him to the ground and said, “And we'll keep telling you ‘til you get it into your head.” Then he dropped his overalls and jumped into the pool.
While Floyd dressed, Billy swam toward Vinetta. As he neared her he said, “Come on out girly. We won't hurt you, unless we've got to.”
Ira jumped to his feet and was about to jump in when Floyd shouted, “Snake!”
Billy stopped but it was too late. The water moccasin bit him on the chest, close to his heart “Good Lord, I'm bit,” he shouted and swam toward the side of the pool. The two boys ran to his aid, pulling him out of the water and laying him down on the ground.
Vinetta thought for a moment of helping, but she knew it was too late. Had the bite been on the leg or hand there would have been a chance of survival, but this bite was too close to the heart and head. She dived down into the water, came up on the opposite bank and pulled herself quickly out.
“You killed my brother,” Floyd shouted at her.
“He ain't dead yet,” Ira said.
“He will be though, won't he?”
Ira said, “Reckon so.”
Billy was already getting light-headed, his chest was swollen.
“It was you that done it,” Floyd shouted to Vinetta.
“I told you there were snakes in the water,” she shouted from the other side of the pool.
“Forget about her,” Ira said. “Help me see to your brother.”
“No. You watch him die if you want to. I'm going after the one that killed him.”
“The snake killed him,” Ira shouted. But Floyd was already on his feet and reaching for his rifle. He lifted it to his shoulder and fired but the girl had already disappeared into the trees. “No use running, you witch,” he shouted, and ran after her.
Vinetta was light and swift and knew the forest as well as any Indian or white man ever had. She ran naked among the briars and harsh pine needles without getting a scratch on her tender skin. Floyd was big and clumsy and had to fight for every inch of ground he covered. He would have given up if blind rage hadn't forcing him on.
He began to struggle for breath, but every time he thought of giving up the chase he would see a patch of flesh between the trees and his fury would increase. He came into a clearing and saw her as she ran into the woods on the other side. He took a shot, cursing when he missed, and resumed the chase. On the other side of the clearing there was a trail, he turned onto it and saw Vinetta disappear around a large rock. It occurred to him that she might be holding back, staying just enough ahead to keep him chasing her, though he couldn't imagine why. He ran on, taking a blind turn at full speed and impelling himself on a sharp limb that was sticking up from the ground. His speed and weight drove the limb through his stomach until the point was sticking out his back.
He let out a scream that stopped Vinetta. Seeing what happened she walked slowly back to the wounded man. There was very little blood flowing from the wound. She knew it would take a long time for him to die. But die he surely would. If the limb were to be removed the blood would all burst from his body.
Floyd managed to force the words, “You killed me,” from his lips.
“No,” she said. “You ain’t dying. You're just passing to another place.”
Floyd tried to say, “Hell,” but could only get out the 'h' sound.
“No,” Vinetta said in a soothing voice. “Not hell. There ain't no hell but what you make for yourself in life.” She put her hands on his cheeks and whispered softly, “I want you to picture your pain like a hat on the top or your head. Can you do that?”
“Now, the pain is melting and seeping into you head, now down your neck, your chest, belly. Do you feel it?”
He didn’t respond.
“Now it's in your legs. It's going down, going down, it's past your knees now, going into your feet. Now it's in your feet. Now it's seeping down into the ground.” In a voice that could barely be heard she said, “It's gone.”
Floyd smiled and said, “Yes, it's gone.”
Ira watched all this from behind a tree about ten feet away. The three of them stayed the way they were for over an hour, Ira afraid that if he moved he'd break the spell, Vinetta, with her hands still on Floyd's cheeks, murmuring softly. Floyd was awake but at peace in a way he'd never experienced in life. Finally, he smiled at her, closed his eyes, and died.