Chapter 1. Old Ways and New
 

Progress is like the insidious change from youth to old age, except that progress does not mean decay. The change that is almost imperceptible and yet inexorable is much the same, however. You will see a community apparently changeless as the years pass by; and yet, when the years have gone and you look back, there has been a change. It is not the same. It never will be the same. It can pass through further change, but it cannot go back. Men look back sick sometimes with longing for the things that were and that can be no more; they live the old days in memory--but try as they will they may not go back. With intelligent, persistent effort they may retard further change considerably, but that is the most that they can hope to do. Civilization and Time will continue the march in spite of all that man may do.

That is the way it was with the Flying U. Old J. G. Whitmore fought doggedly against the changing conditions--and he fought intelligently and well. When he saw the range dwindling and the way to the watering places barred against his cattle with long stretches of barbed wire, he sent his herds deeper into the Badlands to seek what grazing was in the hidden, little valleys and the deep, sequestered canyons. He cut more hay for winter feeding, and he sowed his meadows to alfalfa that he might increase the crops. He shipped old cows and dry cows with his fat steers in the fall, and he bettered the blood of his herds and raised bigger cattle. Therefore, if his cattle grew fewer in number, they improved in quality and prices went higher, so that the result was much the same.

It began to look, then, as though J. G. Whitmore was cunningly besting the situation, and was going to hold out indefinitely against the encroachments of civilization upon the old order of things on the range. And it had begun to look as though he was going to best Time at his own game, and refuse also to grow old; as though he would go on being the same pudgy, grizzled, humorously querulous Old Man beloved of his men, the Happy Family of the Flying U.

Sometimes, however, Time will fill a four-flush with the joker, and then laugh while he rakes in the chips. J. G. Whitmore had been going his way and refusing to grow old for a long time--and then an accident, which is Time's joker, turned the game against him. He stood for just a second too long on a crowded crossing in Chicago, hesitating between going forward or back. And that second gave Time a chance to play an accident. A big seven-passenger touring car mowed him down and left him in a heap for the ambulance from the nearest hospital to gather on its stretcher.

The Old Man did not die; he had lived long on the open range and he was pretty tough and hard to kill. He went back to his beloved Flying U, with a crutch to help him shuffle from bed to easy chair and back again.

The Little Doctor, who was his youngest sister, nursed him tirelessly; but it was long before there came a day when the Old Man gave his crutch to the Kid to use for a stick-horse, and walked through the living room and out upon the porch with the help of a cane and the solicitous arm of the Little Doctor, and with the Kid galloping gleefully before him on the crutch.

Later he discarded the help of somebody's arm, and hobbled down to the corral with the cane, and with the Kid still galloping before him on "Uncle Gee Gee's" crutch. He stood for some time leaning against the corral watching some of the boys halter-breaking a horse that was later to be sold--when he was "broke gentle"--and then he hobbled back again, thankful for the soft comfort of his big chair.

That was well enough, as far as it went. The Flying U took it for granted that the Old Man was slowly returning to the old order of life, when rheumatism was his only foe and he could run things with his old energy and easy good management. But there never came a day when the Old Man gave his cane to the kid to play with. There never came a day when he was not thankful for the soft comfort of his chair. There never came a day when he was the same Old Man who joshed the boys and scolded them and threatened them. The day was always coming-- of course!--when his back would quit aching if he walked to the stable and back without a long rest between, but it never actually arrived.

So, imperceptibly but surely, the Old Man began to grow old. The thin spot on top of his head grew shiny, so that the Kid noticed it and made blunt comments upon the subject. His rheumatism was not his worst foe, now. He had to pet his digestive apparatus and cut out strong coffee with three heaping teaspoons of sugar in each cup, because the Little Doctor told him his liver was torpid. He had to stop giving the Kid jolty rides on his knees,--but that was because the Kid was getting too big for baby play, the Old Man declared. The Kid was big enough to ride real horses, now, and he ought to be ashamed to ride knee-horses any more.

To two things the Old Man clung almost fiercely; the old regime of ranging his cattle at large and starting out the wagons in the spring just the same as if twenty-five men instead of twelve went with them; and the retention of the Happy Family on his payroll, just as if they were actually needed. If one of the boys left to try other things and other fields, the Old Man considered him gone on a vacation and expected him back when spring roundup approached.

True, he was seldom disappointed in that. For the Happy Family looked upon the Flying U as home, and six months was about the limit for straying afar. Cowpunchers to the bone though they were, they bent backs over irrigating ditches and sweated in the hay fields just for the sake of staying together on the ranch. I cannot say that they did it uncomplainingly--for the bunk-house was saturated to the ridge-pole with their maledictions while they compared blistered hands and pitchfork callouses, and mourned the days that were gone; the days when they rode far and free and scorned any work that could not be done from the saddle. But they stayed, and they did the ranch work as well as the range work, which is the main point.

They became engaged to certain girls who filled their dreams and all their waking thoughts--but they never quite came to the point of marrying and going their way. Except Pink, who did marry impulsively and unwisely, and who suffered himself to be bullied and called Percy for seven months or so, and who balked at leaving the Flying U for the city and a vicarious existence in theaterdom, and so found himself free quite as suddenly as he had been tied.

They intended to marry and settle down--sometime. But there was always something in the way of carrying those intentions to fulfillment, so that eventually the majority of the Happy Family found themselves not even engaged, but drifting along toward permanent bachelorhood. Being of the optimistic type, however, they did not worry; Pink having set before them a fine example of the failure of marriage and having returned with manifest relief to the freedom of the bunk-house.