Making use of the folklore tradition of mountain feuds, “Melungeons” focuses on Deputy Ephraim Goins, who, like the other two characters in the story, is a member of the mixed-race group that gives the story its title. The story begins when an elderly man comes into the town jail and asks Goins what he needs to do to get incarcerated. When Goins suggests, “defacing public property,” the man urinates on the jailhouse steps and is put behind bars.
The man identifies himself as Haze Gipson, who Goins recognizes is a Melungeon, a member of a mixed-race community (Native American, African American, and white) who live in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. He also recognizes the name “Gipson” as being the family name of a clan involved in an ongoing feud that began sixty years earlier over the carcass of an accidentally killed bear. Goins, also a Melungeon, has avoided involvement in the feud by joining the army during the Korean War and then living in town since his return.
Gipson explains that he has returned after all these years because he has missed every wedding and funeral his family has had. He tells Goins that he has gone up to the mountains to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but that because he is the last of the old Gipsons still alive, he does not feel safe there.
The story then shifts to Beulah Mullins, an eighty-four-year-old member of the opposing clan, who, although she has not been off the mountain in fifty years, begins a long walk into town. When morning comes and Goins returns to the jailhouse, the old woman arrives. She reaches into her bag and takes out a blackened pot filled with squirrel stew, which she offers to Goins to prove the pot does not contain a file or a pistol. When Goins allows her to take the stew into Gipson’s cell and goes back to his desk to eat, he hears a blast. The old woman has hidden a sawed-off shotgun under her long coat and has taken one last revenge against a member of her enemy clan. She willingly enters another jail cell to await her trial. After Goins locks her up, he opens the jailhouse door and begins walking toward the hills that are his ancestral home.