The Red Pony
by John Steinbeck
Meet Billy, Carl Tiflin's right-hand man. He's a "broad, bandy-legged little man with a walrus mustache, with square hands, puffed and muscled on the palms" (1.1). In other words, he's been ranching a long time. Consider the size of his mustache as directly proportional to the number of years he's been wrangling cows and the like.
Billy really knows his stuff, and its clear from the get go that Jody's impressed by the guy, and turns to him for help with the red pony. And Jody's all ears, "for he knew and the whole county knew that Billy Buck was a fine hand with horses" (1.68). Looks like the red pony's in good hands.
So what goes wrong, then?
The weather, that's what. As an experienced ranch hand, Billy should be able to read the weather like a book. But he miscalculates, expecting sunshine and getting rain. This is a totally understandable mistake, but it packs a wallop, because Jody had left Gabilan out in the weather, on Billy's word the pony would be safe.
And when Jody confronts him about it, his defense is less than convincing: "Billy looked away. 'It's hard to tell, this time of year,' he said, but his excuse was lame" (1.106). This book's narrated in the third person (see "Narrator Point of View" for more), so it's tough to tell who's calling his excuse lame. It could be Jody of course, but it could also be Billy. Either way, it leaves the reader with the distinct impression that Jody has lost faith in his ranching hero, and maybe—just maybe—Billy has lost faith in himself. And as we learn a few lines later, "Billy Buck felt bad about his mistake" (1.115).
Of course the best way to make up for a major mistake is to try to put it right. So Billy fights tooth and nail to save the pony, and some of Jody's faith is restored. He makes yet another promise: "I'll take care of him."
But the problem is, Billy's making promises he can't keep. To be fair, no one could keep them. If a horse gets sick, a horse gets sick. That's just the way of the world. But still, it's gotta be tough for Jody to believe so much in this trusty ranch hand, only to have his hopes squashed over and over again. And it sure doesn't reflect too well on Billy either—he's racking up more broken promises than your local politician.
I Will Be Your Father Figure
Okay, so on the whole father figure scale, Billy's not doing too well. Broken promises are not in Dr. Spock's guide to child rearing. But he does win back some points in one of the final moments of Gabilan's life.
Jody's father comes into the barn and insists that Jody "come on, out of this" (1.173). But Billy turns on Carl and says, "Let him alone. It's his pony, isn't it?" (1.173).
Now, there are two ways to read this. You might think of it as showing a darker side to Billy, as it's the first time we've seen him disobey his employer. Disobedience is not exactly what we're looking for in a right-hand man.
But it's also a moment in which he's clearly on Jody's side. He wants to give Jody a chance to grow up, to experience a little loss. Okay, a lot of loss. And moments later, when Jody goes all medieval on a buzzard, Billy chooses sides once again.
Carl tries to tell Jody that it wasn't the buzzard who killed Gabilan. Frustrated and angry, Billy shouts at Carl, "'Course he knows it… Jesus Christ! Man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?"
Billy lifts Jody up and carries him back to the ranch. He's once again totally defying his employer and treating Jody as he sees fit. It's clear from these scenes that Billy just might understand more about Jody than his own father does, or at least he understands how the kid feels. Despite his broken promises, Billy's got Jody's back.
But is this what a dad would do? It's hard to say. We cheer for Billy being on Jody's side, but we also wonder if, given how the kid reacts, it wouldn't have been better for him to have hightailed it out of there, and missed the whole death. Maybe then that poor buzzard would have gone right on flying.
Hedging His Bets
As scarring as it was, the experience with Gabilan wasn't enough to shake Jody's desire for a horse, and Billy's belief that the boy can totally handle the job. So they knock up Nellie, a mare on the ranch, and soon enough she's pregnant with Jody's second horse.
Still, the Gabilan debacle is fresh in their memories. Jody's a curious kid, and Billy's full of information, so they have a little chat about the birds and the bees of the horse world:
"Sometimes you have to be there to help the mare. And sometimes if it's wrong, you have to—" he paused.
"Have to what, Billy?"
"Have to tear the colt to pieces to get it out, or the mare'll die."
"But it won't be that way this time, will it Billy?"
"Oh no, Nellie's thrown good colts." (3.80-84)
Okay, not to be a negative Nellie or anything, but Billy's promises don't have a good track record. So it's no wonder then, that he hedges his bets a few moments later. After Jody asks him to make sure that nothing happens to the colt, Billy says, "I can't tell […] All sorts of things might happen, and they wouldn't be my fault. I can't do everything. […] I won't promise anything" (3.92).
Well well well. Could it be that Billy has learned something from the Gabilan experience after all? From these lines, it totally seems like he has learned from his mistakes. But let's be clear about what mistakes we're talking about here. Billy knows it wasn't really his fault that Gabilan got sick out in the rain. He can't control the weather any more than the rest of us. It's the promise he made that was the real mistake, and it's one he won't make again.
What Billy has been absolutely guilty of in the past though is assuring Jody of things that he has no control over. Perhaps, at last, Billy is ready to man-up and let the boy know that though terrible things in life may happen, all you can do is do your best to prevent them. And isn't that a much better lesson for both Billy and Jody to learn?
Billy Keeps His Non-Promise
In a weird twist, Billy keeps the promise he never makes. The colt survives, and it's the mare that dies during the birth:
"Go outside, Jody," [Billy] said.
The boy stood still and stared dully at him.
"Go outside, I tell you. It'll be too late."
Jody didn't move.
Then Billy walked quickly to Nellie's head. He cried, "Turn your face away, damn you, turn your face."
This time Jody obeyed. His head turned sideways. he heard Billy whispering hoarsely in the stall. And then he heard a hollow crunch of bone. (3.164-169)
Eesh. Give us a sec, while we collect ourselves. Okay, you good? We're good. Let's dive in.
A couple things are worth noting here. For one, Billy's trying to protect Jody from a horrible experience, much like Carl was trying to protect Jody from Gabilan's death in "The Gift." Oh, how the tables have turned. He's so worked up, he even swears at the poor kid.
Then there's the moment, just before it happens, when Billy is "whispering hoarsely" to poor Nellie. Yep, this dude's a real, live horse whisperer, and it's clear he feels deeply connected to the horse. But why? It just might have something to do with the fact that Billy's own mother died giving birth to him. It's as if he's replaying the scene of his birth all over again, and he still can't save the mother.
Growing Up Is Hard to Do, Especially When You're Already a Grown-Up
Poor Billy. He sure doesn't have an easy go of it in this novella. And it's no wonder that, in the final story, we meet a different Billy altogether.
At the chapter's beginning, we find Billy Buck at a fence, tossing some old hay. Jody asks him if there will be any mice from the hay that he can shoot. Billy tells him yes but he'd better ask his father before he does it.
Wait a second. Since when is Billy on Carl's side? This goes to show that Billy, though he may have once considered himself a sort of father figure in young Jody's life, realizes he hasn't done a bang-up job, and maybe he should leave the real parenting to the… parents.
After all, he pretty much owns up to his new, less confident self. In "The Promise," the narrator tells us,
And Billy knew [Jody] was thinking of the red pony, Gabilan, and of how it died of strangles. Billy knew he had been infallible before that, and now he was capable of failure. This knowledge had made Billy much less sure of himself than he had been. (3.92)
In a way, Billy's doing just as much growing up as Jody is. Once he was on top of the world and at the top of his game, but now he knows he's mortal like the rest of us. It's a tough lesson to learn, but he's gotta learn it nonetheless.