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   Chapter 3 No.3

Flowing Gold By Rex Beach Characters: 22087

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Old Tom Parker was a "type." He was one of a small class of men at one time common to the West, but now rapidly disappearing. A turbulent lifetime spent in administering the law in a lawless region had stamped him with the characteristics of a frontier officer-viz., vigilance, caution, self-restraint, sang-froid. For more than thirty years he had worn a badge of some sort and, in the serving of warrants and other processes of law, he had covered, first in the saddle or on buckboard, later in Pullman car or automobile, most of that vast region lying between the Arkansas and the Pecos, the Cimarron, and the Sabine-virtually all of what is now Texas and Oklahoma. He still spoke of the latter state, by the way, as "the Territory," and there were few corners of it that he had not explored long before it ceased to be a haven of hunted men.

That is what Tom Parker had been-a hunter of men-and time was when his name had been famous. But he had played his part. The times had caught up with and passed him, and no longer in the administration of justice was there need of abilities like his, hence the shield of his calling had been taken away.

Now Tom did not reckon himself obsolete. He was badger-gray, to be sure, and stiff in one knee-a rheumatic legacy of office inherited by reason of wet nights in the open and a too-diligent devotion to duty-but in no other respect did he believe his age to be apparent. His smoke-blue eyes were as bright as ever, his hand was quick; realization that he had been shunted upon a side track filled him with surprise and bewilderment. It was characteristic of the man that he still considered himself a bulwark of law and order, a de facto guardian of the peace, and that from force of habit he still sat facing the door and never passed between a lighted lamp and a window.

Among the late comers to Wichita Falls, where he lived, Tom was known as a quiet-spoken, emotionless old fellow with an honorable past, but with a gift for tiresome reminiscence quite out of place in the new and impatient order of things, and none but old-timers and his particular cronies were aware of the fact that he had another side to his character. It was not generally known, for instance, that he was a kind and indulgent father and had a daughter whom he worshiped with blind adulation. This ignorance was not strange, for Miss Barbara Parker had been away at college for four years now, and during that time she had not once returned home.

There was a perfectly good reason for this protracted separation of father and daughter; since Old Tom was no longer on pay, it took all he could rake and scrape to meet her bills, and railroad fares are high. That Hudson River institution was indeed a finishing school; not only had it polished off Barbara, but also it had about administered the coup de grace to her father. There had been a ranch over near Electra with some "shallow production," from which Tom had derived a small royalty-this was when Barbara Parker went East and before the Burk-burnett wells hit deep sand-but income from that source had been used up faster than it had come in, and "Bob," as Tom insisted upon calling her, would have had to come home had it not been for an interesting discovery on her father's part-viz., the discovery of a quaint device of the law entitled a "mortgage." Mortgages had to do with a department of the law unfamiliar to Tom, his wit, his intelligence, and his dexterity of hand having been exercised solely in upholding the dignity of the criminal branch, but once he had realized that a mortgage, so called, was no more than a meaningless banking term used to cloak the impulsive generosity of moneyed men, he availed himself of this discovery and was duly grateful.

Tom carried on a nominal fire-insurance business, but as a matter of fact the tiny two-roomed frame structure that bore his painted sign was nothing more or less than a loafing place for him and his rheumatic friends, and a place in which the owner could spend the heat of the day in a position of comfort to his stiff leg-that is to say, asleep in a high-backed office chair, his feet propped upon his desk. It was here that Tom could usually be found, and when one of those hateful statements arrived from the East he merely roused himself, put on his wide gray hat, limped around to the bank, and pledged more of his oil royalties or signed another mortgage. What insurance policies he wrote were brought to him by his old pals; the money derived there from he sent on to "Bob" with love and an admonition to be a good girl and study hard and hurry home, because he was dying to see her. This office, by the way, no longer suited Tom; it was becoming too noisy and he would have sold it and sought another farther out had it not been mortgaged for more than it was worth. So, too, was the house where he lived amid the dirt and disorder of all bachelor establishments.

Now Old Tom would have resented an accusation of indolence; the bare implication of such a charge would have aroused his instant indignation, and Tom Parker indignant was a man to shun. As a matter of fact, he believed himself sadly overworked, and was forever complaining about it.

The time came, however, when he was forced to shed his habit of slothfulness as completely as a snake sheds its skin, and that was during the week before "Bob's" arrival. Then, indeed, he swept and he dusted, he mopped and he polished, he rubbed and he scrubbed, trying his best to put the house in order. Never in all his life had he labored as he did then, for four years of "batching" will make a bear's nest out of the most orderly house, but he was jealous of his task and he refused to share it with other hands. Pots and pans, rusty from disuse or bearing the accumulated evidence of many hastily prepared meals, he took out in the back yard and scrubbed with sand, leaving his bony knuckles skinned and bleeding from the process; he put down a new carpet in "Bob's" room, no easy task for a man with an ossified knee joint-incidentally, the "damn thing" kept him awake for two nights thereafter; he nailed up fresh curtains, or they looked fresh to him, at her windows, and smashed a perfectly good thumb-nail in doing so. This and many other abominable duties he performed. But love means suffering, and every pang gave Old Tom a thrill of fierce delight for-"Bob" was coming. The lonely, hungry, aching wait was over.

Constant familiarity with the house had mercifully dulled the occupant's appreciation of its natural deterioration and the effects of his neglect, so when he finally straightened his aching back and regarded the results of his heroic efforts, it seemed to him that everything shone like new and that the place was as neat and as clean as on the day "Bob" went away. Probably Hercules thought the Augean stables were spotless and fragrant when he had finished with them. And perhaps they were, but Tom Parker was no demigod. He was just a clumsy old man, unaccustomed to indoor "doings," and his eyes at times during the last few days had been unaccountably dim-as, for instance, while he was at work in Barbara's chamber.

He did not sleep much on the night before the girl's arrival. He sat until late with the framed photograph of Barbara's mother on his knee, and tried to tell the dead and gone original that he had done his best for the girl so far, and if he had failed, it was because he knew nothing about raising girls and-nature hadn't cut him out to be a father, anyhow. He had been considerably older than Barbara's mother when he married her, and he had never ceased to wonder what there had been in him to win the love of a woman like her, or to regret that fate had not taken him instead of her. Heaven knows his calling had been risky enough. But-that was how things went sometimes-the wheat was taken and the chaff remained.

And in the morning! Tom was up before daylight and had his dishes washed and his things in order long ere the town was awake. Then he went down to the office and waited-with the jumps. Repeatedly he consulted his heavy gold watch, engraved: "With the admiration and gratitude of the citizens of Burlingame. November fifth, 1892." It was still two hours of train time when he locked up and limped off toward the station, but-it was well to be there early.

Of course he met Judge Halloran on the street-he always did-and of course the judge asked when "Bob" was coming home. The judge always did that, too. Old Tom had lied diligently to the judge every day for a month now, for he had no intention of sharing this day of days with a tiresome old pest, and now he again made an evasive answer.

"Mendacity is at once the lowest and the commonest form of deceit," the judge indignantly announced. "You know perfectly well when she's coming, damn you!"

"Honest, I don't-not exactly."

But the judge was unconvinced. "You've been as mysterious as a bootlegger for the last week, but I could always read you like a book, Tom Parker. You know, all right. Mrs. Halloran wants to come over and fix things up for her. She said so this-"

"Oh, I got everything fixed," Tom hastily declared. "Ha! What did I tell you?" The judge glared; Tom could have bitten his tongue for that slip. "Your pitiful attempts to mislead Barbara's admirers expose you to ridicule, and offend those of us who tolerate you out of regard for her." (The judge had a nice Texas drawl, and he pronounced it "reegy'ad.") "You're on your way to the train at this moment and-I propose to accompany you."

"What would I be going to the train for, now?" Tom inquired, in a deceitfully mild tone. Inwardly he was raging, and he cursed the judge for a meddlesome old fool.

"Hm-m! Thought you'd sneak down there, unobserved, probably." There was a pause; then the speaker went on in an altered tone: "D'you suppose she has forgotten all her native accomplishments, Tom? I wonder if she can still ride and rope and shoot, or if those thin-blooded Eastern schoolma'ams have taught her that such things are unladylike and coarse."

"Pshaw! You never forget how to do those things."

"She could handle a horse or a rope or a gun as well as you at your best."

"Better!" Tom declared, with swelling pride.

Halloran wagged his white head in agreement, an unusual procedure, inasmuch as he never agreed with Tom on any subject which offered possible ground for disagreement. "A wonderful girl! And I'll wager they haven't spoiled her. Even you couldn't spoil 'Bob.'" He raised his red, belligerent eyes and fixed them upon his old friend, but there was now a kindly light in them. "You made a real son of her, didn't you, Tom?"

"Almost. I was mighty disappointed because she was a girl, but-I don't know as a boy could of turned out much better. Well, Judge, I got to be moving."

"You are neither grammatical nor precise," snapped Judge Halloran. "You mean we must be moving." He linked arms with Tom and fell into step with him; he clung to that rigid arm, more

over, despite Tom's surly displeasure. Not until a friend stopped them for a word or two was the distracted parent enabled to escape from that spidery embrace; then, indeed, he slipped it as a filibustering schooner slips its moorings, and made off as rapidly and as unobtrusively as possible.

Judge Halloran stared after the retreating figure, then he showed his decayed teeth in a smile. "'Bob' is coming home to-day and the old Mountain Lion is on edge," he explained. "I must warn the boys to stay away from the station and give him his hour. Poor Tom! He has held his breath for four years."

Tom Parker had heard of children spoiled by schooling, of daughters educated away from their commonplace parents and rendered disdainful of them, but never for one instant did he fear that his girl was that sort. He just knew better. He could no more have doubted "Bob's" love for him than his for her, or-God's love for both of them. Such love is perfect, absolute. He took no thought, therefore, of the changes time and poverty had wrought in his appearance: "Bob" wouldn't notice. He bet she wouldn't care if he was plumb ragged. They were one and indivisible; she was his, just like his right arm; she was his boy and his girl; his son-daughter. The old gunman choked and his tonsils ached abominably. He hoped he wasn't in for another attack of quinsy sore throat. But-why lie to himself? The truth was, he wanted to cry and he wanted to laugh at the same time, and the impulses were crossed in his windpipe. He shook his watch like a child's rattle, to be sure it was still running.

Barbara did not disappoint her father. On the contrary, she was perhaps more deeply moved than he at their meeting. At sight of him she uttered a strangled little cry, then she ran into his arms and clung there, tightly, her cheek pressed against his breast. It was only upon occasions like this that "Bob" kissed her father, for she had been reared as a boy and taught to shun emotional display. Boys kiss their mothers. She snuggled close, and Tom could feel her whole body shaking; but she kept her head averted to conceal a distressingly unmasculine weakness. It was a useless precaution, however, for Tom was blind, his eyes were as wet as hers, and tears were trickling down the seams in his wrinkled face.

"Oh, daddy, it has been a long time!" Those were the first words either of them had spoken.

Tom opened his lips, then he closed them. He patted Barbara clumsily, and finally cleared his aching throat with a loud "Harrumph!" He dashed the tears from his eyes with the heel of one harsh palm, then leveled a defiant glare over her head, directed at anyone who might be looking on at his weakness. It was a blurry glare, however, and not nearly so ferocious as he intended it to be. After several efforts he managed to regain control of his vocal powers.

"Well, son!" he cried, huskily; then, "Harrumph!"

Barbara's clutch tightened appreciatively. "Such a long, long time!" Still with her cheek pressed close against him, she ran a small gloved hand into the pocket of his coat and brought forth a bandana handkerchief which she thrust into his palm, saying: "It's a good thing I'm home, for you've caught another cold, haven't you? Now blow your nose."

Barbara was anything but boyish to look at; quite the opposite, in fact. She was delightfully feminine from the crown of her smart little traveling hat to her dainty French heels, and although her suit was not expensive, it was worn with an air and was perhaps as fetching as any that had ever come to Wichita Falls. It gave the impression of perfectly setting off a figure and a personality that required no setting off. She had the Parker eyes of quenchless blue.

"Well, son, there's a boom on and the town has grown some; but I guess things here are about the same as when you left 'em." Tom spoke with pride and satisfaction as he paid the driver, took Barbara's suitcase, and opened the gate for her.

The girl turned from her first long, appraising gaze at the modest home. No change, indeed! The paint on the house was peeling, gutters had rusted out, some of the porch flooring had rotted through, the yard was an unkempt tangle of matted grass and weeds and neglected shrubbery. The sight of it was like a stab to her, for she remembered the place as it had been, and the shock was akin to that of seeing a loved one in the garb of a tramp. But she smiled up at the gray face above her-Tom, too, was as seedy as the premises-and she nodded.

"It hasn't changed a mite," she said, bravely.

A moment later she paused upon the threshold, tense, thrilled, apparently speechless. Tom was reminded of a trim little wren poised upon the edge of its nest. This time it was more difficult to counterfeit an exclamation of joy, but the catch in "Bob's" voice, the moisture in her eyes, was attributed by her father to gladness at the sight of old familiar things. This was pay for the thought and the love and the labor expended, truly.

"Why, everything is right where it belongs! How wonderfully you've kept house! You must have a perfect jewel of a girl, dad!"

"I let Aunt Lizzie go 'bout three years back," Tom explained. "She got-shiftless and I been sort of batching it since. Clean, though, ain't it?"

Barbara turned; blindly she walked to the center table and buried her face in a bouquet of wild flowers garnered from the yard. She held it there for a moment before she spoke. "You-didn't even forget that I love bluebonnets, did you, dad?"

"Pshaw! I 'ain't had much to do but remember what you like, son."

"What's the matter? Business bad?" "Bob's" face was still hidden.

"Oh no! I'm busy as usual. But, now you're home, I'll probably feel like doing more. I got a lot of work left in me yet, now I got somebody to work for."

"So you fixed everything with your own hands."

"Sure! I knew how you like the place to look, and-well, a man gets used to doing without help. The kitchen's clean, too."

Side by side the two moved from room to room, and, once the girl had regained control of herself, she maintained an admirable self-restraint. She petted and she cooed over objects dear to her; she loved every inch of everything; she laughed and she exclaimed, and with her laughter sunshine suddenly broke into the musty, threadbare interior for the first time in four years.

"Bob's" room was saved for the last, and Old Tom stood back, glowing at her delight. He could not refrain from showing her his blackened thumb-nail-the price of his carpentry-for he hoped she'd kiss it. And she did. Not until she had "shooed" him out and sent him downstairs, smiling and chuckling at her radiant happiness, did she give way to those emotions she had been fighting this long time; then her face grew white and tragic. "Oh, daddy, daddy!" she whispered. "What have I done to you?"

Tom Parker had raised his girl like a son, and like a son she took hold of things, but with a daughter's tact. Her intuition told her much, but she did not arrive at a full appreciation of the family affairs until she had the house running and went down to put his office in order. Then, indeed, she learned at what cost had come those four expensive years in the East, and the truth left her limp. She went through Tom's dusty, disordered papers, ostensibly rearranging and filing them, and they told her much; what they did not tell her she learned from Judge Halloran and other old cronies who came in to pay their garrulous compliments.

Tom was mortgaged to the hilt, his royalties were pledged; a crow could not pick a living out of his insurance business.

Such a condition was enough to dismay any girl who had never seriously considered money matters and who had returned home to take up a life of comparative ease and superlative enjoyment where she had left it off, but "Bob" said nothing to her father. She knew every one of his shortcomings, and they endeared him to her, quite as a son's faults and failures deepen a mother's love, but she knew, too, that he was cantankerous and required careful handling. Tom's toes were tender, and he forever exposed them where they were easily trodden upon, therefore the girl stepped cautiously and never even referred to his sacrifices, which would have cruelly embarrassed both of them.

But something had to be done, and quickly; a new hand needed to mend the family fortunes. Barbara determined to lend that hand.

A great change had come over the town and the whole country round about, a change which the girl believed afforded her an opportunity to prove that she was not a mere daughter, not an ornament and a drag, but a real son-daughter such as Tom considered her. Wichita Falls was overcrowded with oil men, drawn thither by the town-site strike at Burkburnett, a few miles northwest, and excitement was mounting as new wells continued to come in. Central north Texas was nearing an epoch-making petroleum boom, for Ranger, away to the south, had set the oil world by the ears, and now this new sand at "Burk" lent color to the wild assertion that these north counties were completely underlaid with the precious fluid. At any rate, the price of thirsty ranch lands was somersaulting and prosperity was apparent in the homes of all Barbara's girl friends. Her admirers of the opposite sex could talk of little except leases and bonuses and "production"; they were almost too busy making money to call upon her.

Barbara knew something about oil, for she had watched the drilling of every one of those shallow wells that had kept her in college, and what is more, she knew most of the property owners in this part of the state. In that advantage she believed lay her chance of accomplishment.

After a fortnight of careful consideration she decided to enter the oil business and deal in leases.

"Good idea," Tom declared, when she had made known her plan. "The town's so full of scamps it looks like Rodeo Day, and most of 'em are doing well. If they can make good, it seems like an honest firm could do better."

"We'll be partners, dad. You run the insurance and I'll be the lease hound."

"Say-" Tom's eyes brightened. "I'll put a desk right alongside of mine-a little feller, just your size-and a nice lounge in the back room, where you can lay down when you're tired. You been away so long it seems like I can't have you close enough." Another thought presented itself, and he manifested sudden excitement. "I tell you! I'll get a new sign painted, too! 'Tom and Bob Parker. Real Estate and Insurance. Oil Prop'ties and Leases.' Gosh! It's a great idea, son!" His smile lingered, but a moment later there came into his eyes a half-regretful light.

Barbara read his thought almost before he was aware of it, and, rising, she laid her hand upon his shoulder. Wistfully she said, "I'm awfully sorry, too, dad-"

"Eh?"

"-that I disappointed you so by not being a boy. But-it wasn't my fault, and maybe I'll show you that a daughter can help as much as a son."

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