Summer had erupted in full profusion, and the plant and animal life had blossomed from winter sterility to summer vigor with a vengeance. The gentle spring rains had paved the way for a warm and fertile summer in the mountains, where our folks lived. But the forest, lush and green, was now still and quiet. The atmosphere was pregnant with the sudden stillness of a bated breath, expectantly waiting and listening for something to happen. No wind stirred the leaves. Two Colors was hunting. He flitted from tree to tree, soundlessly blending in with the forest. He was like a phantom, an ephemeral smoke that came and was soon gone. He was Two Colors, the supreme hunter warrior of the hills.
He was hunting Benjamin Scrumple and the Scrumple gang!
I was going on nigh twelve that summer and glad to be out of school. No real boy wanted to be indoors in the summer, and my mother had arranged for me to go to the Holler. This was somewhere out in the Smoky Mountains where Ma had grown up. She wanted me to get to know her family and spend time with her sister and family. Ma had been born there and lived there until the day my Pa had passed through the town doing his legal work for people who had little or no schooling. When my Pa had seen her, he told me later that he was plumb knocked out and felt that he had to marry her and bring her to the city to live with him and his fancy friends.
Well, I took the stage to the Holler, and my mother, with a few sniffs into her handkerchief, told me to straighten my back and walk tall and proud as if her people were better than the poor trash in the Holler. My mother was a straight one with a backbone of steel. She walked like it also, firmly and steadily. She had kept herself slim and graceful despite having three youngsters and allowed no one to mess with her or our family. She was a regular church-going woman who did not cotton to the slackers and hangers-on who came to my Pa with problems. He was a lawyer with a lot of schooling and a learned way of talking, especially after he had what he called a "few" with the boys at the tavern. Most people in town respected him, and I believe he gave honest service to all the crooks and gentlemen of low character, as my mother would call them. However, Ma thought he was a sucker for any sob story those thugs would relate to him.
Honestly, I felt that she treated him the same as my sisters and me, as someone to be hugged every now and then but needing discipline. She never raised her voice in public with him, but I often would hear him being scolded at home in the night as if he had been her child, like my sisters and me. Nevertheless, they got along as good or better than my friends' parents in our town, who would regularly have some dangerous confrontations ending in black eyes and burst lips. With the characteristic sniff of her sharp nose, my mother would remark that they were common trash and no better than the hill folk in the Holler. So, she had me carted off to her sister for the summer, telling me that Uncle Abner would need me to help him in the store since he had no boys of his own but one measly daughter who, by all accounts, was a very flighty girl with no common sense.
I quickly made friends with a few boys of my age in town, and we had a great time at the fishing hole where we lazed the summer days away. But, of course, we all had to do chores at home because Uncle Abner was an important man in Oakwood and owned the biggest, which just happened to be the only, Emporium in town. Herb and Pete were the two boys with whom I often played after work at the Emporium, and they filled me in on the Scrumples.
The Scrumples had moved into this neck of the woods a mere twenty years ago, homesteading on the mountain's higher reaches. Their cabins clung precariously to the mountainsides like ticks on a dog's hide. They were a lazy and shiftless lot and made moonshine in their stills for sale to the flatlanders. As personified by Sheriff Boog Lawson, the law was afraid of the tribe and avoided them like the plague. They were known to be good with their squirrel rifles, and soon they multiplied and grew in numbers, with Scrumples joining them from other locations out of state; and even marrying their kin. Soon, the town folk would call anyone behaving like these folk "Scrumples!". The saying would be, "Don't be a Scrumple!" if a person would act in a crude and obnoxious manner or be guilty of generally unrefined or extremely uncouth behavior.
That was the unfortunate reputation the Scrumples had amassed in the time they had dwelt in the Holler. The old man, or Patriarch of the family, was Jacob Scrumple. Consistent with the precept of his biblical forebear, he had himself a passel of young'uns with seven boys and two girls. The girls of the clan would come into town on a Saturday to make their groceries and go shopping at Old Abner's Emporium. They were usually a scared-looking lot, shepherded by harsh-faced older women folk who brooked no nonsense. Our town of Oakwood was only about six hundred. Still, the population became considerably swollen on weekends when the young men and women from outlying homesteads would come in to socialize and shop.
Now, Benjamin Scrumple was the last of Old man Jacob's boys, and he was different. He was good-looking, kept himself neatly groomed with shining blond hair, and was said to be an excellent sweet-talker with the ladies, for whom he had quite an eye. The town mothers kept a close eye on their girls when he was around. My cousin Laura, Old Abner's gal, was used to helping her Pappy in the general store on weekends. During the week, she was our part-time school teacher, for in summer, we didn't have regular classes, and she was a tough one at that! Sometimes Benjamin would sidle up to her and start chatting away. She was the belle of the town with her blue eyes and cornflower blonde hair and did not seem to mind his sweet talk. Since her mammy, my Aunt Bella, was not always there, no one suspected anything until the morning when Old Abner found a note on his kitchen table saying she had run off with Benjamin to get married. Then all hell broke loose!
Well, Old Abner was furious, and rightly so. She was all the get he had, and he treasured her mightily. But he happened to be the town's mayor and the richest man in the county. He did not want her wasting her life with backwoods trash like the Scrumples. So, he called an emergency meeting of the Town Council to try and get back his daughter. But, of course, he did not tell them that she had gone off voluntarily. "He took her!' he cried vehemently, "you know he has those taking ways, and he fooled my poor innocent daughter!"
The Council hemmed and hawed because no one wanted to go into those hills to run up against the Scrumples. As I may have mentioned previously, they were a fearsome, godless lot. Some of the Council members wanted to get the county's sheriff involved, but the scandal might have been too much for Old Abner and his wife. In any case, Sheriff Lawson was known to be scared of the Scrumples. Finally, the Council decided to place a bounty on getting her back from Benjamin Scrumple and see if the latter could be eliminated somehow or the other.
Eventually, someone brought up the name of the hunter and tracker, Two Colors. Fortunately, Herb, Pete, and me were listening in on their conversation in the Council chamber unbeknownst to them.
The council members looked at each other uneasily. "He's just as bad as the Scrumples, maybe even worse, so I hear," Councilman Joel blurted out.
"Well, did you ever hear about fighting fire with fire? We need someone as bad to go in there and bring her out, and I never heered about him kidnapping girls," Councilman Thomas shifted his chaw and emphasized his point with a well-aimed stream of tobacco juice into the nearby spittoon. There and then, I figured I would try to practice that technique, as it was mighty impressive.
"Ever consider that she may not want to come home?" Councilman Joel wiped his sweating face apologetically as Abner glared at him.
"I told you he forced her to go with him, practically kidnapped her. We will get the hunter. I'll pay him real well."
The next afternoon, a tall, slim boyish-looking young man clad in buckskins got down of his horse, hitched it loosely to the post outside Abner's Emporium, and walked inside. He trod lightly on the balls of his moccasin-clad feet in a peculiar cat-like fashion with toes turned in, Indian-style.
"Heard you wanted to hire me for a job, sir?" He said to Abner.
"You Two Colors?" asked Abner in some surprise and dismay. Such a well-built personable young man could not possibly be the much-heralded and feared bounty hunter! The man spoke precisely, without the idioms and the accent of the backcountry boys, of whom there were a great many in this neck of the woods.
"Sure am," he replied. And he smiled, the whiteness of his teeth being more in evidence because of his noticeable, permanent outdoor tan. There was something in the high cheekbones of his face and the dark coloring which betrayed some of his Indian heritage.
"Come in! Come in!" Old Abner hooked his thumbs in the front straps of his suspenders, which seemed to be in danger of bursting because of Abner's considerable girth, and he conducted the young man to the office where he explained the problem.
"Two things, Mr. Abner," the young man was polite and matter of fact. "She may not want to come home and," he hesitated a bit, "you have to be prepared for what folks might say about her spending the night up there with those Scrumples."
Abner's face turned almost purple, but then he recovered. "I'll give you a note for her to read, and she will understand. As for the folks in town, they can damn well think what they can!"
"Very well, sir. I'll have her back as soon as I can." He spoke matter-of-factly, almost casually offhand, not seeming the least concerned about the job, and walked out the door, closing it carefully behind him. He left Old Abner feeling relieved with more confidence that the task was as good as done. To us, boys, he was someone to admire. We looked at him in awe as he swung easily into the saddle of the bay, his face unemotional and calm as if he had no care in the world. The big six-gun rested comfortably on his right thigh, and he balanced it with a Bowie knife on the left. The rest of this story I got from my cousin Laura. She was really not a bad sort of a gal but tended to be bossy. I think that Ma's family, at least the females in it, must have been all like that.
Two Colors' movements became cautious as he hunkered down on his heels surveying the cabins below. He waited. He was good at waiting.
Suddenly there was a commotion as one of the Scrumple men ran out of a small cabin alongside the main house. He was in pain and bleeding from a visible wound on his head. "Damn that woman! She sure is a wild one!" he practically screamed. And the hunter, an interested observer, surmised that he had gone in there, a-courting, and was not exactly welcome. He saw a girl move out into the yard with a heavy iron skillet in her hand and knew that it had been her weapon of choice. He chuckled to himself. "They did not know what they were getting into," he thought to himself, and he admired the gumption of the unknown girl and suddenly realized that she most certainly would be Old Abner's gal.
Some of the folk from the other cabins came out to see what the ruckus was about and started laughing at the discomfited young man.
Two Colors marked the cabin and settled down to wait for nightfall.
As night closed in and darkness overwhelmed the clearing, he saw the lanterns wink into existence in each cabin. He waited until a well-setup young man, whom he supposed to be Benjamin Scrumple, knocked on the cabin door, which opened to let him in.
Two Colors crouched low to the ground, keeping himself invisible to anyone in the clearing, and snaked his way silently to the back of the cabin until he could hear the raised voices. "You let him come in here?" he heard her say, her voice raised in anger. "Sure, he didn't mean anything. He's my older brother," was the low-voiced reply.
"Well, you could have fooled me because it was plain what he wanted, and I am not going to lie down with any man until this finger has a ring on it and a parson has said the right words over us as I told you before, Mr. Benjamin Scrumple!" He heard a loud slap and a thud as a body fell. "Don't sass me, gal, if you know what's good for you. There's plenty more where that came from!" And another whack followed. He heard the sounds of a struggle and her voice saying, "You're all beasts! I should have known," with the sound of a choking sob. He heard her voice raised defiantly.
A loud laugh and, "A bit late for that, ain't it, Missie? The town folk and your dad know you are here. No need to act so high and mighty. You're just like all the rest of those town girls. Just want a little lovin' from the right man!" Two Colors heard another thud and realized that it was time for him to act, and he quickly slipped inside. He was familiar with the crude single wooden latch and, efficiently and swiftly, lifted it silently with his knife. However, he knew he had to work fast. Before Benjamin could turn around and start to talk, a steely arm was whipped across his throat, and the right hand came down with a heavy object on his head. He went out cold. Two Colors caught his body and gently laid him on the ground.
The girl got up from the floor, bleeding from her lip, and her eyes widened at his sudden appearance. "Your father sent me. Read this." And he thrust the paper into her hand.
"Come, we have to go quickly." He took her hand, lifted the backdoor latch, and hurried her to the shadows. Once they melted silently into the forest, he made his way surely and swiftly until he came to a clearing where he had hidden the two horses. Then, in a few moments, they were on their way. There was no way the brothers and other clan members would catch up with them now.
"How did you know where to find me?" She asked.
"Been here all day observing the clearing. So easy! You did a fine job on that guy who came a-courting early on." And he laughed soundlessly, his shoulders shaking with mirth.
"He treated me like a regular floozy," she snapped back, offended by his ready laughter. "I did not imagine I would be shared among the brothers!"
"Well, you learned something about them. If I were you, I wouldn't give your parents and friends that bit of information. The less said, the better." You could see that he was enjoying himself.
Once they hit the flats, the horses broke into a canter, and soon the town came into view. The dawn was breaking by the time they were at the door
He knocked at the entrance of the big house, and Abner came out. His daughter ran into his arms, crying in relief, "Oh, Dad! I am so sorry."
He looked at Two Colors.
"She's unharmed, sir." His answer was simple and straight.
"Wait up a bit, son. Come in while I get your reward." The young man followed him and walked in to see the lady of the house preparing breakfast. "Would you care for some tea or coffee, Mr. Two Colors?" she asked.
"Some tea would be fine, Ma'am." He doffed his hat, hung it carefully on the hat rack, and sat at the kitchen table; his long legs tucked neatly under the leaves. "The name is not Two Colors, ma'am but Joe. Two Colors is just my Indian moniker. My mother told me that it was my father's way of saying that I belong to two worlds, Indian and white." He looked around at the Chintz curtains, varnished wooden furniture, and the neat china cabinet, all signs of a prosperous home at that time. "Nice place you've got. Reminds me of home."
She looked at him in surprise.
"My mother's a schoolmarm and keeps a very tidy home," he explained sheepishly and smiled.
"Laura, come and help me get breakfast ready. Joe is staying to eat with us."
Laura and her father entered the room. "She is a good cook, you know, son."
Again, the soundless laugh and the shaking shoulders, "I guess she knows how to handle a skillet, sir." Laura glared at his inappropriate levity, giving him a look with which he was to become all too familiar for many a year thereafter!