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Rural Kentucky, 1973
The night was cold—the moon full. A faint hint of wood smoke stirred in the air, while tortured shadows lay upon the decaying forest floor like puddles of spilled ink.
On a nearby hill, a cougar slipped between an outcropping of rocks on his way to his lair, dragging his prey as he went. Tomorrow, a farmer would find his best goat had gone missing, while down in the valley below, animals of the dark abounded. The night seemed no different from any other as they scurried about, intent upon the simplistic routine of their existence. Then, without warning, everything stilled.
A raccoon paused at a creek bank, tilting his head toward the forest behind him before dropping the minnow he had been about to eat and shinnying up a nearby tree. A fox, who had been lying outside her burrow letting her kits nurse, suddenly bolted to her feet and hustled them back inside. An owl abruptly took to the air from a nearby tree, moving through the forest on silent wings. On the heels of his flight, a primordial shriek shattered the silence, hanging on the air like mist, then echoing within the valley.
Over a mile away, and on another mountain, a woman up tending to her sick child heard the faint cry and shuddered as she glanced toward the partially opened window. Even though she knew it was most likely a cougar, the similarity between that sound and a woman's scream was all too eerie—especially at this time of night. She pulled the covers back over her child, then walked to the window and pushed it the rest of the way shut.
Back down in the valley, another cry followed the first, weaker in intensity, but more distinct in sound. There was no mistaking it for that of an animal. It was the cry of a newborn baby, shocked by the abruptness of its entry into the world.
Flames from the campfire burning at the back of the cave flickered weakly, shedding little light on the drama playing out within the cavernous depths. A thin column of smoke spiraled upward, escaping through a small hole in the high domed ceiling, forming a natural chimney. It dissipated without notice in the outside air.
Nineteen-year-old Fancy Joslin lay only a few feet from the fire on a makeshift cot. The last spasms of childbirth had passed, leaving her weak and weary. Cradling her newborn child upon her belly, she cleaned the babe and herself as best she could. She wouldn't let herself think of the lack of sanitation in which her child had been born. For now it was enough that they had both survived.
A suitcase near the mouth of the cave held all of her worldly goods. It wasn't what she'd planned to take to her home as a bride, but it would have to do. All of the Joslin heirlooms that should have been hers had burned up over a month ago in the fire that destroyed their home. She couldn't prove it, any more than her family had been able to prove any of their losses over the past one hundred years, but in her heart, she blamed Jubal Blair.
Uncle Frank was dead because of him. They'd called it an accident, but everyone knew it was just part of the ongoing feud between the Joslins and the Blairs. And, truth be told, over the years, the Joslins had done their fair share of keeping the hate between the two families alive. There were plenty of Blairs resting six feet below the rich Kentucky earth who could attribute their passing to an angry Joslin.
Even in Fancy's lifetime, she'd heard the men in her family talking about things that they'd done in the name of justice, but there wasn't anything fair about a feud. It was revenge, pure and simple.
She rolled her baby up into a blanket, then set her jaw. It did no good thinking about the hate that had destroyed her family and, ultimately, her home. As long as Joslins and Blairs still lived on the mountain, it would continue.
And that was the reason she was in hiding. She was the last of the Joslins, but she would not risk her life or her child's by staying in this place any longer.
With a weary sigh, she lay back on the pillow. In a way, she'd already fallen victim to a Blair. Turner. But not in the way Jubal would have imagined. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't loved Turner Blair. But it was only after she got pregnant that panic set in. This was a secret she wouldn't be able to hide forever. Turner's joy in the news had lessened her fears, and when he'd insisted on a moonlight wedding ceremony beneath the overhang of Pulpit Rock, Fancy's anxiety had lessened even more. The fact that it had been less than proper hadn't mattered to either of them. In their hearts, they were man and wife.
And they'd made plans to run.
But then Turner's mother had taken sick. Running away in the midst of her last days had been more than he could do. So they'd waited. And they'd waited. It had taken Esther Blair six months to die, and with each passing month, Fancy Joslin's condition had become more and more apparent. Her uncle Frank had been shocked and then incensed, demanding each day for her to name the man who'd wronged her. But giving up Turner's name would have been the end of them both, so she'd remained silent, suffering Uncle Frank's condemnation instead.
And then came the fire. After that, she'd been certain that Turner would come and take her away. He'd come, all right, but not as she'd expected. He'd hidden her in this cave, asking her to trust him for a few days. He had some money coming to him from a job he'd just finished and they would need it when they left. Telling him no was impossible, which was most of the reason she was in the shape she was in. So, two months from delivery, she hid. But the days had turned into weeks, and now it was too late.
Weak and aching from the trauma of the birth, Fancy raised up on one elbow, looking at her baby through a blur of angry tears, then fell back onto the makeshift cot, clutching the child against her belly. Damn Jubal Blair. She and Turner should have been in Memphis by now.
The baby's weak cry stopped her thoughts. She raised herself up again in sudden panic. But the baby had stopped crying and her eyes were fixed upon the dancing shadows of the dwindling fire. Fancy stroked the tiny head and the cap of thick black hair, marveling at the sheer perfection of her and Turner's love. Her sweet Kentucky drawl broke the silence in the cave.
"You listen to me, baby girl. Your daddy and I are going to get you out of here. I swear on my life that you will not be raised in this hate."
The baby turned toward the sound of her mother's voice, as she must have done many times within the womb. Fancy's heart contracted with a sweet ache she wouldn't have believed. With shaking hands, she traced the shape of the baby's face and knew the power of a mother's love. And, in that moment, she also knew a great shame. She closed her eyes against tears, wondering how she'd come to this—married in secret, hiding in an abandoned cave like some animal, instead of living in a home like normal people.
And therein lay her problem. Normalcy had no place in her life—not as long as she stayed in Camarune.
Something moved beyond the shadow of the firelight. She clutched the baby in fright, staring fearfully into the shadows. Suddenly a small possum waddled past on its way toward the mouth of the cave. She dropped back onto the pillow with a shudder and clasped the baby close to her breasts.
"My God, little girl, what have we done to you?"
Then she rolled the baby more tightly into the blanket and snuggled her close. With a pain-racked sigh, she stretched out upon the cot.
"I need to rest," she said, more to herself than to the baby. "Daddy will come, and then we'll get you out of this awful place."
The dark and absence of sound within the cave where mother and baby lay must have been reminiscent of the womb that the baby had just exited. With hardly more than a squeak, the tiny girl turned toward the steady beat of her mother's heart and slept.
Turner's suitcase was under his bed. His money was in his pocket. On a normal day, Jubal Blair wouldn't have been anywhere close to the house, but for some reason, today had been different. Turner felt less than the man he should have been for not standing up to his father. But he'd been raised too many years under the looming shadow of Jubal's wrath to break free from it so easily now. To make matters worse, he was worried sick about Fancy. Keeping her hidden in the cave like an animal shamed him. God had decreed that man should protect the woman who was his wife. He should feed her and care for her. Stand by her side in the day and lie by her side in the night. But Turner didn't just have a wife to consider. There was the feud.
He'd been raised on hate. Hate for anyone with the name Joslin. Only the first time he'd seen Fancy Joslin, he'd fallen in love. As he remembered, she'd been nine years old to his eleven. Even then, they'd known to keep their friendship to themselves. By the time Fancy was sixteen, Turner had known she was the woman for him. But sneaking the occasional meeting in the woods was dangerous. Their love had stayed true, but their meetings had been sporadic. Until Fancy told him about the baby.
Anger at their situation had spurred him to a daring he might never have achieved otherwise. One night, long after midnight had come and gone, they met on the mountain beneath the overhang of Pulpit Rock and pledged their lives and love. After that, leaving was a foregone conclusion.
He shivered with excitement, thinking about their child. By this time next month, they would have a whole new life. He imagined himself bathing her, watching her learn to walk and talk, hearing her laughter, protecting her as he would protect her mother.
A raucous shout startled him, and he quickly moved to the window. It was his brother John. John's hounds were in the back of the truck. That explained why Jubal had stayed close to the house today. They were going to run the dogs.
He turned, staring nervously at his bed and picturing the packed suitcase hidden beneath, then smoothed sweaty palms down the front of his jeans. Coon hunts were nothing new. Just a part of family tradition in the mountains. And it wasn't so much the kill that Jubal Blair craved as it was the camaraderie of the event.
Turner's belly drew tight as he glanced out the window again. Another delay in getting to Fancy. Then a new thought occurred. Maybe he wouldn't go on the damned hunt. He would make some excuse and when they were gone, he would slip away, get Fancy, and they would be off this mountain before sunup.
But what to tell Jubal Blair was another problem. What could he say that would get him out of the hunt? He saw his father shaking John's hand and then helping him get the dogs out of the truck bed. The hounds were antsy and swarmed around the men's legs like blowflies on a dung heap. Turner watched his father turn toward the house and thought to himself that if he lived to be one hundred, he would never be the force his father was. The man radiated power, from the thick shock of gray hair, to his broad, weathered stature.
"Turner, your brother is here!"
Turner winced at the underlying demand in his father's voice. Jubal still treated him like a boy. Why didn't his father realize he was a grown man, too? Turner sighed. He'd lived through many nights like the one that was being set up. Before long, his other two brothers, Hank and Charles, would surely arrive. Hank with Old Blue, and Charles with his Little Lou. All three brothers swore their hounds were the best, and each time they were together, it was a battle of whose dog struck trail first, rather than the thrill of a hunt. Turner knew that Jubal liked the underlying discord. It fed the anger that lived in his heart.
"Turner! Damn it, boy, I'm talkin' to you!" Jubal yelled again.
Turner sighed. He was twenty-one years old. His daddy shouldn't be talking to him like that anymore. Even as he was thinking it, he caught himself moving quickly through the small frame house as he headed for the door.
"There you are, boy!" Jubal said. "Get these dogs some water." Then he patted John on the back. "Come on inside, son. I've got a little something in the cupboard you might like to taste."
Turner's sense of injustice grew. His daddy never offered him a drink of whiskey. As he headed for the well house to get a pan to water the dogs, he kept telling himself that he would never treat a child of his own the way Jubal treated him.
Before he was through, his other two brothers had arrived with their dogs. The congregation of four-legged hunters began baying and howling at each other in what could only be described as a welcome. Turner sighed. Even they had a bond. His brothers smiled at him and waved as they walked on into the house, but they didn't stop to talk. Turner's indignation grew. What the hell do they think I am, hired help?
He slammed the pan of water down on the ground, then scooted it toward the dogs with the toe of his boot. His forehead was furrowed, his posture stiff, as he stalked into the house. But his anger soon changed to fear as he overheard the conversation in progress.
"…about the fire."
Turner froze. The only fire on the mountain had been the one in which Frank Joslin had died.
"Yeah," Jubal growled. "There ain't nothing they can prove. The chimney was cracked. The house caught on fire. Case closed."
One of Turner's brothers laughed. The sound was harsh and ugly. How could men rejoice in another man's death? He listened as another round of whiskey was poured into glasses.
"Here's to the Blairs. Right's on our side, and it's over. God is good," Jubal growled.
Turner listened as the light clink of glasses drifted into the hall where he was standing. His belly clenched. God couldn't possibly have anything to do with the hate that had entrapped them all.