The Red Pony: Novel Summary: Story 1 - The Gift
Note - The Red Pony is comprised of four episodic stories concerning Jody Tifflin and life on his family's California ranch in the late 1930's. Although the stories can stand alone, they support each other thematically and together offer a rich portrait of Jody and the experiences that mark his departure from boyhood.
Billy Buck, the ranch hand, begins the day by looking at the sky from the bunkhouse steps. He tucks his shirt into his pants and loudly clears his nostrils before he begins currying and brushing the horses. While he works he talks quietly to the animals. He finishes two of the horses before he hears Mrs. Tifflin, the owner's wife, ringing the triangle that signals breakfast is ready. Billy walks to the house and, knowing that the family has not yet arrived in the dining-room, he sits on the steps and waits. He can hear the owner, Mr. Tifflin, stamping into his boots. The triangle not only succeeds in alerting Billy, it rouses Jody Tifflin, age ten, out of sleep and into instant motion. Brushing his unruly blonde hair from his eyes, Jody dresses in a chambray shirt and overalls and washes his face and wets his hair in the sink. After Jody sits at the dining-room table, Billy and then Jody's father joins him for the feast of fresh eggs, bacon and coffee. Jody notices that his father is wearing boots and gleans that the two men are going somewhere for the day. He secretly longs to join them. Mr. Tifflin asks Billy about the cows and the ranch hand assures his boss that everything is ready. Though Billy asserts that he can handle the day's work himself, Mr. Tifflin assures Billy, in a friendly way, that the company will do him good. At Mrs. Tifflin's query, Mr. Tifflin tells her that he and Billy are going to Salinas and might not be back until after dark. After breakfast, Jody watches Billy and his father drive six old cows over the hill toward Salinas where he knows they will be sold to a butcher. After they have disappeared from sight, Jody and the two dogs, Doubletree Mutt and Smasher, walk up the hill behind the house. On the way they observe the quail feeding with the chickens, they pass through the garden where the corn is still green and the pumpkins yet small, and they drink from the moss-lined wooden tub where the spring water collects. From the hill, Jody surveys the ranch and the long low bunkhouse (of which Billy Buck is the only resident) and the great iron kettle beneath the black cypress tree where the pigs are slaughtered and scalded. As the sun rises higher and the sounds of the field animals, the squirrels and the birds, fill his ears Jody begins to sense a certain ambiguity in the air. He notices two large buzzards circling over the far side of the hill. He knows that something must have died there and he feels an instinctual hatred for the carnivorous birds but simultaneously recognizes their value as scavengers that removed carrion and disease from the farm. On his way home he maliciously smashes a garden melon with his foot and instantly regrets doing so. He hides the damaged melon by kicking dirt over it. At the house his mother looks helplessly at his dirty condition, knowing that any attempt to clean him properly will be soon undone, and after inspecting his dirt-lined fingernails she sends him off to school carrying his books and lunch. Jody is the sort of ten year old whose mouth moves when he is thinking and Jody's mother notices that this morning his mouth is working a lot. Walking along the dirt road to school Jody fills his pockets with stones which he throws at birds and rabbits he encounters along the way. Soon he is joined by two other boys and they playfully make their way. The school year is only two weeks old. At four o'clock Jody returns home and, noticing that the corral is empty and his father not yet returned, he gloomily begins his chores. His mother stops mending socks long enough to tell him that there are doughnuts for him in the kitchen which he promptly stuffs into his mouth. She gives him instructions to stack the wood properly and to look in the grass for any nests where the chickens might be hiding some of their eggs. He sees that some of the wild quail join the chickens when he tosses the feed but he doesn't chase the quail away because he knows that his father is proud that the quail feel safe on the farm. For this reason no shooting was allowed near the house. When his chores are completed Jody takes his .22 caliber rifle up to a spring behind the brush line. There he aims it at all manner of things but since he will not be allowed to have ammunition until he is twelve years old aiming is all he can do. He catches himself aiming it toward the house and quickly lowers the gun when he remembers that the last time his father had added another year to his ammunition probation. Dinner is not served until after his father gets home later that evening. Carl Tifflin smells faintly of brandy and Jody is glad because when his father smells of brandy he sometimes tells stories of his younger days. After dinner, Jody waits patiently for the stories and news from Salina but his father tells him to go to bed. "I'm going to need you in the morning," he says. Jody is glad to hear that something out of the ordinary might happen but his father will not tell him what to expect. Jody leaves the room and he hears his father and Billy Buck chucking. Later that night he hears his father and his mother quietly arguing. He hears owls, the tree tapping on the window and the lowing of cows as he falls asleep.
The next morning Jody is at the breakfast table early. He smashes his pancakes and eggs together and spears the mass with his fork. His father and Billy Buck enter the dining room and Jody can tell by the sound of their shoes on the floor they are wearing flat soles. He notices that his father looks stern. Carl Tifflin tells his son to accompany himself and Billy Buck that morning. Jody is further alarmed when he notices that Billy Buck will not meet his gaze. After breakfast Jody struggles to keep his mind clear as he follows the two men across the yard. He hears his mother calling, reminding her husband that Jody cannot miss school. They walk all the way to the barn which, owing to its position at the base of a hill, is still shrouded in darkness. Inside, Jody's father leads him to a stall and as the boys' eyes adjust to the dim interior light he makes out the shape of a red pony colt eyeing him from the stall. Jody steps back in surprise and shock. The animal is wild looking and appears slightly rebellious. Jody barely hears his father tell him that he will sell the pony the minute he hears that Jody has failed to take care of it properly. Gazing at the floor he shyly asks: "Mine?" When nobody answers he reaches out to touch the animal and receives a bite in return. Looking at his bruised knuckles he observes with pride that the pony can really bite. The two men laugh, somewhat in relief, and Jody's father, overcome by an embarrassment of emotion, walks away to be alone. Billy Buck, however, confirms that the pony is Jody's and offers to teach him how to break him correctly. He tells the boy that the pony was purchased cheap from a show that went out of business. He leads the boy to an ornate show saddle purchased with the pony and though Billy disparages its relative impracticality the boy believes it is the most beautiful saddle he has ever seen. He pats the pony again. He decides to call him "Gabilan Mountains" (which means "hawk") after the mountain range that lies to the east of the ranch, but at Billy's suggestion Jody shortens the pony's name to Gabilan. Jody wants to lead the horse to school to show his friends but Billy tells him that the pony is not halter trained and was trouble all the way back from Salinas. Jody reluctantly leaves for school.
Immediately after school Jody and five of his friends run all the way from the schoolhouse to the barn where they stand awkwardly in front of the pony. Jody's friends, who previously thought of him as just an ordinary boy, now hold him in high esteem. The pony changes everything about him in their eyes and the boys are impressed as well by the ornate saddle. Though the boys plead with Jody to lead the horse around the yard, Jody refuses on the grounds that the pony is not yet halter trained but also, secretly, because he wishes to be alone the first time he takes the pony out of its stall. After awhile the boys leave, each considering what possession he will be willing to trade for a ride on the pony when the time comes. Jody is glad to be alone with Gabilan and, speaking calmly in a low voice like Billy Buck, he soothes the animal and brushes its coat to a high luster. He braids the mane several times and is engaged in brushing the pony's coat yet again when his mother enters the barn. She is angry that her son has neglected his chores but when she sees his ministrations she feels a strange ineffable pride. After gently reminding Jody that he has other chores she consents to giving the pony some of the carrots from the garden. She again feels pride when she hears Jody express the opinion that the carrots will help keep the pony's coat in good condition.
Jody no longer needs the breakfast triangle to get him up in the morning. More often than not he is the first one awake in the cold, grey light of morning when he quietly slips into his clothes and quickly makes his way to the barn. Gabilan is always ready and waiting for him. Often Billy Buck is there as well getting the work horses ready for the day. Billy Buck is one of the finest horsemen in the region and he tells Jody that horses like to have things explained to them and the ranch hand provides examples and stories that enthrall the young boy. After currying and brushing the pony, Jody turns him loose in the corral where Gabilan gallops in circles until he is calm. Then the pony strides to the water trough and, burying his nose in the water, drinks deeply. Jody is proud of his horse and though he's been around the animals all his life he begins to notice things about the pony that he's never considered before. For instance, he learns to read the pony's moods based on the disposition of his ears. In the early autumn Billy Buck helps Jody begin training the pony. The first step, the halter breaking, is the hardest but Jody is patient and after lots of work is able to lead the pony all over the farm and even is able to drop the rope whereupon Gabilan continues to follow. Next he trains the horse on the long halter. This took more time but the spirited pony enjoyed galloping in circles at the end of the long rope. Sometimes, however, the pony misbehaves. Sometimes he bites Jody in the pants and stomps on his feet and seems to enjoy doing it. In the evenings Billy Buck uses the horse hair that Jody collects during the day to fashion a hair rope for the pony. One day Jody's father observes the precision with which the pony is responding to commands and expresses his concern that the animal is becoming too much like a show pony. To Jody's delight he announces that the time has come to train the horse for the saddle. Jody races to the barn where he has mounted the saddle on some saw horses and in recent months has spent many hours pretending to ride the range with his rifle across the pommel.
Over the course of many hard days Jody accustoms Gabilan to the saddle. Billy shows him how to use a piece of licorice to slowly accustom the pony to having a bridle in its mouth. It pleases Jody when the pony reacts with fear and frustration to the bridle because the boy knows that "only a mean-souled horse does not resent training." Jody is secretly afraid to mount the horse for the first time. He knows that the pony will throw him, this is inevitable and nothing to be ashamed of, but he is afraid that he will not have the courage to get back on. Then one day, about three weeks before Thanksgiving, Carl Tifflin announces that the horse will be ready for riding on the holiday. Though Gabilan knows and trusts Jody, the boy understands that the first time he is on the horse's back would be a big moment for both of them. Jody is most concerned that it will rain before the big day because he has seen horses lose their footing in the mud and fall on a fallen rider, crushing bones in the process. He practices diligently on the saw horses and is careful never to grab the horn of the saddle which is a sign of weakness and, in the young boy's mind, would bring horrible life-long shame upon his family. As Thanksgiving draws near, Jody leads the horse on long, pleasurable walks through the fields.
Before Thanksgiving the weather turned chilly and the winter arrives quickly in the form of an unceasing wind and long spells of cold rain. Jody does not let the horse get wet and only takes him out of the stall for exercise once a day. One morning the sun breaks through the clouds and Jody, after consulting with Billy Buck who promises it will not rain that day, decides to leave Gabilan in the corral for the afternoon. Later that day, however, the rain begins to fall again and Jody is sorely tempted to leave school but stays until the end. He arrives home to find the pony soaked and miserable in the cold rain. Jody does his best to dry him off and makes some hot mash but Gabilan does not take much of the food. At the supper table Jody's father announces that a little rain never hurt a good horse and expounds his theory that weakness and coddling are not proper treatments for a horse. Billy Buck, however, feels guilty and accompanies Jody to the stable to rub the listless horse. That night Jody awakes at 2am and, believing it to be morning, begins dressing to go to the barn until he hears the clock strike the hour and he gets back into bed. The next morning, a Friday, he surprises himself by sleeping later than usual and runs to the barn where he is mortified to hear the raspy breathing of a sick horse. Billy Buck is tending to the ill pony and answers Jody's questioning stare with reassurances that the pony just has a slight cold and will be fine. Billy Buck promises to stay with Gabilan all day while Jody is at school and proposes that the next day (Saturday) Jody can tend to him all day. Jody is filled with fear and drudgery all day at school and on his way home he secretly wishes that he might never arrive because he dreads what he will find at the ranch. His fears are realized when he discovers that Gabilan is worse. The pony's breathing is forced and his eyes are almost completely closed. Billy Buck tends to the sick horse and makes Jody feel a lump under the animal's jaw. Billy Buck explains that when the lump gets bigger he will open it and the horse will be fine. Jody knows what the lump means: Gabilan had a sickness called "The Strangles." Jody helps Billy prepare a steam treatment of bran and hops mixed with carbolic acid and turpentine. They apply the mixture by steaming it though a bag into the pony's nose and lungs where it temporarily clears the layer of mucus. Afterward the pony seemed to be better and Jody volunteers to stay with him that night but Billy Buck promises to sleep in the stall with the sick animal. In his worry, Jody doesn't notice that someone else has done his other chores. Jody's father does not speak during dinner but afterward he tells his son stories of the old days until he realizes that the boy isn't listening. Carl Tifflin is hurt that his son is not entranced by the stories as he has been in the past but he does not protest when Jody takes a lantern and goes to the barn. There he sees Billy Buck asleep in the hay and sees that the pony is looking better. Back at the house his mother checks on him before he goes to bed to make sure he has enough blankets and to reassure him that the pony will be fine.
The next morning at breakfast Billy Buck tells Jody that he will open the lump on the pony's neck. Jody follows Billy down to the barn where the man sharpens his best knife to razor precision and then tests the blade on his calloused thumb and then on his soft upper lip. The pony looks worse - his eyes are sealed shut by dry mucus and his breath is full of painful groans. Billy lifts the pony's head and quickly punctures the lump which immediately begins to ooze yellow pus. After he has swathed the wound Billy tells Jody that the pony will most likely start feeling better soon. When Jody commented that the pony was very sick Billy hesitated a moment and then agreed but quickly observed that he had seen horses that were worse get better. Jody stays with the pony all that day and laments the horse's sickness. One of the dogs, Doubletree Mutt, comes into the barn with his tail wagging and Jody is so angry at the dog's healthy display that he throws a hard earthen clod at the mutt. Later that afternoon Jody takes some supplies out to the barn so he can spend the night with the sick pony. He does not ask permission because he senses that he does not need to. At nine o'clock Jody falls into an uneasy sleep but comes awake with a start. The barn door has blown open and Gabilan is weakly meandering about the corral. Jody leads the stricken beast back into the stall and notices that the pony's breathing is constricted. The boy sleeps no more that night. At dawn Billy Buck comes and, after observing the pony's condition, tells Jody to leave because he has to cut a hole in the pony's throat so it can breathe. Jody, however, is determined to stay and he holds Gabilan's head while Billy cuts a button-size hole in the pony's throat. At first the hole bleeds a great deal but then the horse begins to receive much needed oxygen and the blood stops flowing. The hole makes a sucking sound. The triangle rings for breakfast and Billy told Jody to go and eat. Jody dispiritedly trudges to the house and mechanically eats a plate of cold food. His mother says nothing while he eats but before he returns to the barn she offers him a plate of hot meal for the pony. "He won't eat anything" cries the boy and he runs back to the barn where Billy showed him how to keep the hole clear of fluid. Carl Tifflin visits the barn and seeing his son and the pony he insists that Jody get away from the sick horse and go with him on a cattle drive over the hill. When Jody shakes his head "No" Billy defends the boy and angrily points out to his boss that it is Jody's pony to care for. Carl's feelings are hurt and he leaves the barn. All that morning Jody tends to Gabilan. At noon Billy arrives to relieve the boy and advises him to get some rest if he plans on staying with the horse that night. Jody walks away from the barn and notices that all the familiar objects of his life - the house, the barn, and the brush line - all seem to be changed into nothing more than a backdrop to the struggle for the pony's life. Doubletree Mutt approaches and Jody, remembering his previous cruelty to the poor dog, strokes the animal's matted fur and picks a flea from its back. Instead of going to the house Jody stays outdoors and listens to the wind.
At the barn Jody receives a cotton swab for the wound and he notices that the pony's hair is dry and dead looking. The boy has seen that look on the fur of dogs and cows that were about to die and he knows that Gabilan is doomed. Still he stays with the horse all that day and when his mother brings him some stew for dinner he barely touches it. He dozes and wakes in the night chill. The pony's breathing is quiet and the boy wraps himself in a blanket and falls asleep next to the horse. As falls asleep he hears the wind careening about the barn. He wakes to the weak light of early morning. The barn door is open and the pony is gone. Jody follows Gabilan's tracks across the frosty dew toward the brush line on the ridge. He sees a circle of black buzzards wheeling overhead. Deep in the brush he finds the red pony lying in small clearing. The horse is surrounded by a circle of solemn buzzards waiting for the moment of death. By the time Jody reaches the clearing the pony is dead and one of the buzzards is astride the carcass gnawing on the pony's eye. Jody lunges for the bird and catches it in mid-takeoff. The bird calmly and deliberately struggles with the boy - its red eyes and naked head betraying no emotion. The bird vomits putrefied liquid but still the boy holds its neck. Finally, Jody grabs a piece of quartz rock and awkwardly beats the bird to death. He is still beating it when Billy Buck and Carl Tifflin find him. Billy Buck embraces the boy to calm his shaking. Carl Tifflin wipes the blood from his son's face and reminds the boy that the buzzard did not kill the pony. Billy Buck angrily tells his boss that of course the boy knew what happened: "Jesus Christ! Man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?"
This story chronicles several important events that will contribute to Jody's growth from boyhood to manhood. First, he is given the responsibility of caring for an animal and proving himself worthy of the task. His mother's silent pride as she watches him care for the pony is evidence that she perceives that her boy is acquiring the sensibilities of a man. Without realizing it himself, Jody begins to behave differently once the pony is entrusted to him. Instead of showing off to his friends, Jody decides to wait for a private moment to lead the pony out of its stall. He also begins to eschew his usual disdain for chores and sees them as simply a necessary component of caring for and thus deserving the pony. His newly acquired responsibility is the price he pays for the pony and he gladly accepts his new role. Second, he learns that though adults such as Billy Buck may be his friend and have good intentions they are fallible and he should never take another man's word as the absolute truth. Billy certainly means well by promising Jody that the pony will get better but when the horse's condition continues to worsen he recognizes that it is better to tell the boy the whole truth simply not dismiss any disappointments. When the pony dies Jody's esteem for Billy suffers the shock of reality in which no man's promises can guarantee life or death. Third, the loss of the pony teaches Jody that no matter how much he cares for an animal it may still die and whatever feelings of sorrow and anger he retains should not be directed at any one or thing. Rather, life is precarious and must be respected. Nevertheless, Billy understands the boy's rage and murder of the buzzard are the result of his emotions and not any flaw in logic as Carl Tifflin implies.