The Red Pony - Plot Synopsis
John Ernst Steinbeck, Steinbeck's father, with the "Red Pony" foal Jill in 1906.
"The Gift" opens with ranch hand Billy Buck emerging from the bunkhouse to undertake his morning tasks until Ruth Tiflin, mother to Jody and wife to Carl Tiflin, the ranch owner, rings the triangle for breakfast. Ever respectful, Billy Buck waits outside for the Tiflins to sit down for the day's first meal before he enters. Jody, the ten year old heir of the Tiflin Ranch, who is described as having "hair like dusty yellow grass[,] shy polite grey eyes[,]" and "a mouth that worked when he thought," is awakened by the triangle and enters the scene (145). Young Jody is followed in by his father, Carl, who is dressed for the day's business. Inquisitive and anxious, Jody sits at the breakfast table waiting for his father to tell him where he and Billy Buck are going that day, hoping he might go with them.
After breakfast, Carl and Billy Buck drive half a dozen cattle off to Salinas, the neighboring town. Jody mills around playing with the two ranch dogs, Doubletree Mutt and Smasher, until it is time for his walk to school. Later that day, after gallivanting with his peers and throwing rocks at passing animals on the walk home, Jody finishes his daily chores and anticipates his father's return, which he assumes will be accompanied by the telling of exciting stories of the trip to town. Much to his dismay, however, Jody's father simply instructs him to go to bed as he will be needed early in the morning.
The following morning, Jody is routinely awakened by the triangle and excitedly throws on his clothes and darts to the kitchen where he is ordered to accompany his father and Billy Buck after breakfast. Bewildered, and a little worried, Jody follows his father past the black cypress tree where pigs are slaughtered and into the barn. At his father's prompting, Jody peers shyly over a box stall and finds a beautiful red pony looking back at him. The pony's "tense ears were forward and a light of disobedience was in its eyes" (151).
Jody questions in disbelief if the pony is truly his. After Jody finally accepts "the gift," Carl Tiflin shuts himself out of the barn with pride and embarrassment leaving Jody and Billy Buck behind. Thenceforth, Billy Buck serves as mentor, instructing Jody on how to properly care for his new pony, which is an important responsibility. Together, Jody and Billy Buck name the colt Gabilan after the Gabilan Mountains.
Under Billy Buck's supervision, Jody assumes responsibility for the horse and begins to dream of his new potential. The acquisition of Gabilan and "a new admiration and a new respect" from the other school boys cause Jody to childishly boast about his new pony and his capabilities, though the horse is not yet halter-broken (153). As caregiver, Jody begins to emulate Billy Buck's behavior and "croon[s]" to the colt while he brushes its coat until it takes on a deep red shine (154). This bliss is only interrupted by his mother scolding him for forgetting his chores and he gets to them quickly.
Unlike previous mornings, "Jody never waited for the triangle to get him out of bed after the coming of the pony" (155). Rather, he begins to creep to the barn at dawn where he finds Gabilan waiting anxiously and whinnying softly. On these mornings, he speaks with Billy Buck about how to tend to his colt and gets general advice on how to raise a good horse. With the help of Billy Buck, Jody begins to train Gabilan in the fall until he is "perfect" at doing tricks (158). Meanwhile, Jody collects horse hair so Billy Buck can weave it into a rope.
Though Jody works diligently to train his horse, eventually Carl Tiflin expresses his displeasure with Gabilan being a trick pony because, as he says, "It takes all the—dignity out of a horse to make him do tricks" (158). Emphasizing his stern and no nonsense point of view, Carl instructs Jody to get Gabilan ready to ride so he does not lose his "character" by being a trick pony (158). Jody takes preparing Gabilan to ride very seriously and is gentle each day as the saddle cinch is tightened until the horse learns to tolerate it. He gathers as much information about how to ride from Billy Buck as he can.
Jody's anxieties about somehow losing Gabilan, or being thrown off on his first mount and breaking his leg or hip, or being disgraced by being "throwed in the mud" begin to grow during this period (160). Jody begins to dwell on thoughts of embarrassment and loss and he combats his negativity by walking with Gabilan through the fields. Ever worried, Jody wishes "it might not rain before Thanksgiving, but it did" (161). It rains for a week and Jody continues to take good care of his colt, keeping him out of the rain and dry and warm. Once the rain stops, Jody considers leaving Gabilan out in the corral. Under the advice of Billy Buck, the veteran horse keeper, who promised to look after Gabilan and put him in his stall if it rained that day, Jody decides to leave him out. However, "winter came fast" that year, and while Jody was in school and Billy Buck and Carl were stuck at Ben Herche's place, so did the rain (161). Jody runs home from school to find Gabilan standing alone, cold, and soaked in the middle of the corral. "The red coat was almost black" and Jody tried to dry it as best he could (162).
Jody's greatest fear comes true as Gabilan is stricken with "the strangles." Billy Buck, who "wasn't wrong about many things," is ashamed of the blow he has taken in Jody's estimation and ensures the pony's recovery (162). Jody and Billy Buck feverishly care for Gabilan, trading shifts while Gabilan's condition worsens. During Jody's shift with his horse, he drifts to sleep and dreams of the pony's death. He is awakened by the struggling sounds of Gabilan, who has escaped from the barn.
Eventually, as the sick pony struggles for breath, Billy Buck takes drastic measures and cuts a hole in Gabilan's throat while Jody stands silently watching. "Jody couldn't have gone away if he had wanted to" and stands speechless and afraid (170). He bravely holds up Gabilan's head and cleans out the mucous that builds in the air hole so that his pony can draw breath through the incision.
On a night shortly following the surgery, despite Jody's worries, beset by fatigue, he once again falls asleep while caring for the pony. Jody is awaked at daybreak to find the barn door wide open and his pony gone. As he frantically searches for Gabilan, he spots buzzards circling in the distance. As he approaches, he finds a dark, bald-headed buzzard perched on the deceased Gabilan's head, gouging out his eye. Infuriated by the sight of his dead pony, Jody rushes into the surrounding circle of buzzards and fights them off, choosing one on which to vent his rage and frustration.
Jody "was still beating the dead bird when Billy Buck pulled him off and held him tightly to calm his shaking" (174). Carl Tiflin stolidly stands there questioning the irrational act of his son and judiciously asks Jody about his rationale for attacking the buzzard. Billy Buck, dismayed by Carl Tiflin's lack of compassion and understanding, lashes back exclaiming, "Jesus Christ! man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?", as he carries Jody off into the house (174).
Harvested cauliflower field with Santa Lucia piedmont/foothills and mountains (west side) in background. Phot by Richard Allman and reproduced by his permission.
"The Great Mountains"
"The Great Mountains" tells the story of ten year old Jody's summer boredom and how he and his family receive an unexpected visitor. Finding nothing constructive to do around the ranch, Jody musters up some entertainment by being cruel to his dog in childlike fashion. Jody baits rat traps with cheese so that his dog, Doubletree Mutt, will get his nose snapped. Engrossed in boyish fantasies and immature, senseless violence, Jody moves on to using his slingshot to kill a bird. Once he kills the bird, in shame and embarrassment, he goes over and dismembers the corpse and disposes of it in a bush to hide the evidence of his act. Though Jody "didn't care about the bird, or its life he knew what older people would say if they had seen him kill it; he was ashamed because of their potential opinion" (176).
During his midsummer boredom, Jody becomes entranced with the "[c]urious secret" Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, wondering what mystery they encompass and what lies beyond them (176). His boyish curiosity had led him to question his no nonsense father, Carl Tiflin, about them in the past, but his efforts were futile. His father gave only short answers about how there was nothing in the mountains but mountains, and the only thing beyond was the sea. In his curiosity, he asked Billy Buck as well, but he too replied that there was nothing special about the mountains. The perceived mystery, however, impassions Jody and he compares the well-known, friendly, and inviting Gabilan Mountains to the east with the foreboding Great Ones of the west, which he knew nothing about, only to "[shiver] a little at the contrast" (178).
During his daydream scan of the horizon, "a moving figure caught Jody's eye" (178). He spots a man heading toward the ranch from the road to Salinas and runs towards the house so that he can be there when the stranger arrives. The old paisano man approaches the ranch carrying a gunnysack and informs Jody that his name is Gitano and that he has "come back" implying the significance of his return (179). Jody spreads word of Gitano's arrival around the ranch. When it finally reaches his father, Carl Tiflin greets the old paisano in a cold, though courteous manner.
Observant of Gitano's enfeebled condition, and the sympathy his family expresses for the old paisano, Carl invites Gitano to stay and have dinner that night though he insists Gitano must leave in the morning. Carl Tiflin is much annoyed and disdainful once Gitano reveals he was originally from the surrounding area and expresses his desire to die in the ruined adobe building up on the hill near the Tiflin's home. He jokes about putting Gitano "out to pasture" like his old and now useless horse, Easter (185). Despite Carl Tiflin's coldness, both Billy Buck and Jody are captivated and sympathetic towards old Gitano and his dying wish. After dinner, Billy Buck defends the old paisanos telling Carl, "They're damn good men" (186).
That night, Jody, who has come to associate Gitano with the mystery of the Great Mountains, sneaks over to the bunkhouse and spies the old man reverently polishing an old rapier "with a golden basket hilt. The blade was like a thin ray of dark light. The hilt was pierced and intricately carved" (187). Though he is not fully aware of the rapier's significance, Jody believes he has witnessed something quite special and vows to keep the event to himself, knowing "[h]e must never tell anyone about the rapier. It would be a dreadful thing to tell anyone about it, for it would destroy some fragile structure of truth" (187).
The next morning, the Tiflin Ranch awakens to find both Gitano and Easter, Carl Tiflin's aging horse, gone. Later, a local farmer reveals he saw an old man gripping what appeared to be a gun, riding Easter bare-baked through the bush. Carl and Jody respond to the news quite differently. While Carl prejudicially declares he is not surprised the old man stole his horse, Jody is overcome with a deep sense of sadness and significance. He lays down at the brushline and as he thinks of Gitano, the rapier, and the mountains, he is overcome with a "nameless sorrow" (189).
"The Promise" opens with the young boy Jody's solitary walk home from school. On this particular walk, Jody entertains himself by pretending to be a soldier and playing games with various animals, reptiles, and bugs. This engrosses his attention until he approaches the Tiflin Ranch and comes upon the mailbox: "for the little red metal flag was up on the mailbox, signifying that some postal matter was inside" (191). Inside he finds "a Montgomery Ward catalogue and a copy of the Salinas Weekly Journal" and excitedly takes them directly to his mother (191).
Jody's childlike excitement over the journal and catalogue is not reciprocated by his mother and his mood in soon dampened when his mother informs him that his father wishes to speak to him. Jody finds his father, Carl Tiflin, standing with the ranch hand, Billy Buck, near the corral. Jody approaches fearing he is in trouble, though he is quickly relieved once his father begins to reminisce about how well Jody had cared for his pony, Gabilan (see "The Gift"). Carl Tiflin suggests Jody might like to care for a colt from birth. Jody's confirmation is a quick and definite "Yes, sir," even when dedicating himself to working off the five dollars that was to be spent on the new colt without complaint (192).
The next day, Jody is given the responsibility of taking the mare, Nellie, to be inseminated by Sundog, the neighbor's black stallion. On their way towards Jess Taylor's ranch, the stallion, Sundog, comes racing down the hillside and collides with Nellie with great force. Jody, in childlike innocence is frightened and does not understand what is happening. He fears the stallion might hurt Nellie and his chances of having another colt and begs Jess Taylor, Sundog's owner, to separate the two. Taylor is able to quell Jody's fears and so the mating process is complete.
In his gratefulness towards his father for his new pony, Jody sets about completing his chores with a seriousness never before seen on the Tiflin ranch. Again he turns to Billy Buck for advice on raising his horse, though Billy warns him it will seem like an eternity before the horse is born. Eventually Jody does grow impatient after observing Nellie for three months and seeing no signs of the impending birth. He tells Billy Buck he hopes his colt is "black, and a stallion" and questions him about the birthing process (198).
Once Billy Buck explains the various dangers of giving birth, Jody becomes worried as he remembers the fate of his pony Gabilan and asks for Billy Buck's reassurance that nothing will happen to his new pony. Billy Buck defensively remembers his failure to save Gabilan and assures Jody that he will do "everything [he] know[s]" to make sure the colt lives, though he specifically states, "I won't promise anything" (199). Jody tries to be reassured, but as he passes under the black cypress tree on the way back to the ranch house, the traditional spot of animal slaughter on the Tiflin Ranch, he is possessed by a sense of foreboding. After Billy Buck's assurance, Jody spends time fantasizing about his pony. He childishly envisions himself riding his stallion, "Black Demon," into several heroic exploits.
One morning, as winter is approaching, his mother prepares hot mash for Nellie and Jody finally notices her abdomen has swollen dramatically. Again, in his childlike naivety, Jody is fearful of the change he has observed and again seeks reassurance from Billy Buck that Nellie is okay. His anxiety grows as January wears on, and the colt, who was due midmonth, has yet to be born. One night, Jody awakens in a panic and rushes to the barn to check on Nellie. Billy Buck orders him back to bed and his father, quite unconvincingly, attempts to allay his fears by reminding him of Billy Buck's expertise.
The next morning, Billy Buck awakens Jody for the birth of the colt. Upon examining Nellie, Billy Buck realizes that the colt is breech. He remembers his assurances to Jody and resolves to take drastic measures to save the colt. He grabs a hammer and asks Jody to leave, though he refuses. Billy Buck administers two swift blows to Nellie's forehead. After she drops, he immediately cuts open the abdomen and removes the black colt and lays it at Jody's feet telling him, "There's your colt. I promised. And there it is. I had to do it—had to" (208). Billy Buck acknowledges he has fulfilled his promise as Jody is overcome by the spectacle of life, death, and the significance of Billy Buck's act.
"The Leader of the People"
"The Leader of the People" begins on a delightful spring morning when Jody comes upon the ranch hand Billy Buck gathering up the remnants of last year's haystack. Jody becomes enthralled with the idea of hunting and killing the mice that have been fattening themselves in the haystack all year long, with the help of his two ranch dogs, Doubletree Mutt and Smasher. When told he must ask his father's permission to hunt the mice, he finds Carl Tiflin riding in with a letter from Ruth's father that states he will arrive for a visit on Saturday. Since it was Saturday, they decide the letter must have been late. Jody is sent out to complete his chores while Carl expresses his exasperation with Grandfather's repetitive storytelling of his "westering" exploits and troubles with the Native Americans while crossing the plains. Ruth attempts to defend the importance of the event, which was "the big thing" in her father's life, to no avail (213).
Jody, who in contrast greatly admires his grandfather and his exciting stories, goes out to greet him. He spots Grandfather leading his horse down the dirt trail which leads to the ranch. Grandfather approaches and is pleased that Jody has come to greet him. Excitedly, Jody tells Grandfather of his plans to hunt the mice and how they might kill a pig in celebration of his arrival, but Grandfather doubts they would make such a to-do because it was not the time of year to slaughter the livestock. As they approach the ranch, Ruth, Carl, and Billy emerge to greet Grandfather.
Immediately upon sitting down to supper, Grandfather begins to tell tales of his experience crossing the plains. While Jody listens in wrapped attention and Billy Buck listens respectfully, Carl Tiflin interrupts and blurts out the Grandfather should finish his dinner: "You'd better eat some more meat. All the rest of us are ready for our pudding" (218). Carl Tiflin's impatience continues to grow after dinner as he interrupts Grandfather's attempt to tell a story they have already heard. Sensing his wife's anger with his rude behavior, he invites Grandfather to finish his story. His impatience is again contrasted with Jody's attention and Billy Buck's willingness to stay and respectfully listen to Grandfather though Billy Buck had already expressed his intention of retiring for the evening and had risen to say goodnight.
The next morning Billy Buck finds Jody preparing for the mouse hunt. The two enter the house and join Carl and Ruth who are waiting for Grandfather to appear at the table. Carl begins to complain about Grandfather and his stories, asking with exasperation, "Well how many times do I have to listen to the story of the iron plates, and the thirty-five horses? That time's done. Why can't he forget it, now it's done?" (222). When Grandfather suddenly appears, it is evident he has overheard everything. Embarrassed, Carl responds by apologizing to Grandfather and saying his was just fooling around, only further embarrassing himself in front of the family.
Respectfully, Grandfather rejects the apology and tells Carl he might be right. After breakfast, Jody and Grandfather go outside to kill the mice. Grandfather decides to stay and sit on the porch. Jody quickly loses interest in the mice and returns to sit with Grandfather who then begins to comment on the lost significance of his westering experience. He tries to explain to Jody that the true importance was the movement itself, the people pouring over the trail in unison, and not the destination, and that for a moment, he was privileged to be the "leader" of the people (225).
Jody expresses his desire to someday lead the people, but he is deflated when Grandfather tells him there is nowhere else to go. Sensing his grandfather's sadness, Jody offers to make him lemonade. Though he initially refuses, Grandfather realizes the significance of Jody's attempt to comfort him and accepts the offer. Jody procures one lemon for Grandfather's beverage and, much to his mother's surprise, rejects her offer of one for himself.