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In New Orleans, musician Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier, so called because of his trademark snakeskin jacket, explains to a judge that he started a brawl because "my life was something sick in my stomach, so I threw it up." The judge agrees to let him off as long as he leaves the city, so Val takes his beloved guitar and drives east until his truck dies in a small Mississippi town. He seeks shelter at the first illuminated house, where amateur artist Vee Talbot awaits her husband, Sheriff Jordan Talbot, who is chasing down a boy who escaped their jail when Vee left the door ajar. When they hear gunshots in the distance, Vee, realizing the boy has been killed, cries. Impressed with her kindness, Val comforts her and admires her paintings. Learning that he hopes to leave his wild past behind him, Vee suggests that he ask for a job at Jabe Torrance's mercantile store. Jabe, who has terminal cancer, is just returning from the hospital, and he and his wife Lady, who live above the store, will need a salesman. Jordan then returns with his deputies, and after ignoring Val, berates Vee for her carelessness. The next day, Vee brings Val to the Torrances' store, and while he awaits the arrival of Lady and Jabe from the hospital, Carol Cutrere, the daughter of a wealthy local family, recognizes Val and enters the store. Carol is disheveled and unruly, and when Val claims not to know her, she announces that he served as her "entertainment" at a New Orleans party, after which he stole her cousin's watch. Just then, Jabe returns, and while the townspeople welcome him boisterously, Lady stands aside quietly, exhausted by his cruel domination. Noting how the others despise Carol, Val agrees to leave with her and accompanies her to a nearby "juke joint." There, however, Carol's brother David is drinking, and when the proprietor tries to throw Carol out for past indiscretions, she lewdly flirts with the men until David slaps her. Val ushers her out, and in the car asks her why she is so out of control. She answers that she is an exhibitionist who needs to be "noticed and seen and heard and felt." Carol takes Val to a cemetery, but when she tries to perform oral sex, he pushes her away and insists she drop him at the store. Inside, he overhears Lady on the phone demanding sleeping pills from the druggist and then whispering that she wishes she were dead. Val introduces himself and explains that he left with Carol in order to help her, but returned after realizing that she considered him a "stud" for hire. Equally drawn to and suspicious of Val's good looks and charm, Lady is intrigued by his description of people as either buyer, those who are bought, or those who belong nowhere, whom he likens to a legless bird that must spend its whole life in the air. Warming to him, Lady shows him the back lot that she plans to transform into a confectionary. When they are interrupted by Jabe, pounding his cane to summon her, Lady offers Val the job, warning that he holds no interest for her. Two weeks later, Lady is annoyed by the women who frequent the store, hoping for Val's attentions. After Jabe treats Lady with customary contempt, she lashes out at Val, to whom she is attracted. Soon after, Carol causes a commotion in the gas station next door, and when the owner slaps her, Val drags her away, bleeding. She informs him that she rushed back to town from New Orleans that morning to find him, and when Lady refuses to allow her into the store, Carol takes Val in the back and tells him she loves him. She warns him that the town will destroy him, but he calls her a little bird and tells her to fly away. David has been summoned to collect Carol, and when he enters the store looking for her, Lady confronts him, revealing that their affair years earlier led to a pregnancy. After he left her and she lost the baby, she continues, she "sold" herself to Jabe. David tries to apologize for leaving her, but she screams and he leaves with Carol. Later, Vee and Jordan arrive, and Vee is mesmerized by Val's description of the creative process, which he says the two share. Spurred on by Jordan, Jabe demands that Val come upstairs, and there sadistically derides Val and Lady, whom he suspects of having an affair. Lady asks Val to accompany her to the site of her father's wine garden, which was burned down years ago after her father sold liquor to blacks. She explains tearfully that when her father tried to extinguish the fire, he was burned alive. They are interrupted by Jordan, who has come to check up on them. Back at the store, Lady offers to let Val sleep in the back room. Later that night, he steals money from the till and drinks, carouses and gambles until he has doubled the cache. He then returns to the store to inform Lady he is leaving, and when she tells him she is disappointed in him, he drags her into the back room, slaps her and reveals he knows she set up the room just for him, hoping to seduce him. Although he assumes she is interested only in having sex with him, Lady has fallen in love with Val, and when he realizes her sincerity, he takes her to bed. Over the next weeks their love deepens as they build the confectionary together, decorating the lovely structure with tinsel, bells and lights. On opening night, Lady has planned a gala celebration, which is marred by the appearance of Jabe. Upon seeing her creation for the first time, he explodes in disgust and declares that he helped burn down her father's wine garden. Upon mounting the stairs, Jabe suffers a hemorrhage and falls. Later, Val sees Vee staggering in the street, but when he tries to help her, Jordan corners him and warns him to leave town by morning. Soon after, Carol approaches Lady in the store and, within Val's hearing, announces that David has offered to support her financially as long as she leaves the state. She invites Val to come with her, and although he refuses, he tells Lady he must leave, and she assumes he plans to join Carol. He asks her to accompany him, but Lady, bent on revenge, insists that she must open the confectionary because she "will not be defeated again." When she grabs Val's guitar to force him to stay, he slaps her, but then they embrace. Jabe's nurse spots them and tells Lady with disgust that she can tell she is pregnant, and Lady dances with joy. Upstairs, however, Jabe sets the confectionary roof on fire and calls the sheriff to place the blame on Val. When Lady goes after Jabe, he shoots her. As she dies, Jordan leads his men in leveling the water gushing from the fire hoses against Val, until they drive him backward into the burning confectionary. The next morning, Carol surveys the wreckage, cradling Val's snakeskin jacket. "Wild things leave their skins behind them so the fugitive kind can follow their kind," she says, before driving away.