"At daybreak, Billy Buck emerged from the bunkhouse…" (1.1). Meet our ranch hand.
Billy's a muscular guy who works on Carl Tiflin's cow ranch in sunny California in the 1930s. He has been with the Tiflin family for many years and Carl would probably be lost without him—he's that good.
Jody Tiflin is "a little boy, ten years old, with hair like dusty yellow grass and with shy polite grey eyes, and with a mouth that worked when he thought" (1.2). He's Carl's son.
When his father (a true disciplinarian) and Billy ride off to sell some cattle in Salinas, Jody walks to school for a day of worry-free boyhood.
In the evening, Carl and Billy return and eat a dinner prepared by Mrs. Tiflin.
Carl tells Jody he is going to need his help in the morning. Jody's intrigued, but a little nervous, too.
When he questions his father further, Carl brushes him off, and Jody heads to bed.
At daybreak, Jody is rousted out of bed by the familiar sound of the morning triangle, and at breakfast Carl tells him to follow him and Billy to the barn.
He does, albeit reluctantly and with his head down fearing some sort of punishment or impossible chore, or (gulp) maybe both.
In the barn, Jody comes face to face with a beautiful red pony. (If you didn't see that one coming, maybe you skipped over the title of the book?)
"Mine?" (1.38) Jody asks shyly.
Carl doesn't answer but tells his son he'd better take good care of the pony.
Then he walks out of the barn because he is a manly man and has no patience for emotions.
Billy, it turns out, is not only an excellent ranch hand but is also a stupendous horse trainer.
He's gonna teach Jody all there is to know about raising this pony.
Jody names him Gabilan, after the prestigious, majestic mountains that lie to the east.
Seeing as he's a typical kiddo, the first thing Jody wants to do with Gabilan is show him off to his friends. His standing among his classmates is elevated to hero status when six boys come to see the red pony that afternoon.
They're a bit bummed when they learn that Gabilan is way too young to ride, but they perk up a bit when Jody shows off a brilliant, red morocco saddle.
Oohs and aahs ensue, and Jody beams with pride and love for Gabilan.
But the attention gets old fast, and Jody is glad when his friends leave. Finally, he gets to be alone with his pony.
Jody caresses Gabilan and says soothing words to him. The time flies by as the boy spends hours with his pony. Evening arrives and his mother has to remind him to do his chores. Boo on chores! The kid's got a pony! True, but as Jody knows full well, one must never shirk one's duties.
Time goes by and Jody learns everything there is to know about horses from Billy.
They set about to training Gabilan. First they halter-break him, which is not as easy as it sounds. Gabilan can be mischievous in a playful way, which is fun enough, but it makes it tough to train him. He even seems to laugh when he knows he is doing wrong and Jody tries his best to see past the cuteness and be a better disciplinarian, like his father.
Speaking of dear old dad, Carl seems to think that Billy and Jody are focusing too much on turning Gabilan into a "trick pony." Really, all they've done is teach Gabilan to walk and stop walking on command, but Carl's all, dude, just cut to the chase. Saddle the pony.
But saddling is no easy job and Gabilan fights against it tooth and nail. But with time and patience, the pony soon accepts his fate as a horse that will be used to cart a kid around.
Carl tells Jody that his pony should be ready to ride by Thanksgiving. But of course, Jody gives no thanks for this news because Turkey Day is three weeks away and to Jody, that's a lifetime.
In the midst of all this prep work, grooming, and day-to-day care, Gabilan comes to trust and love Jody, who totally feels the same way. Remember your first pet? Yeah, it's pretty much like that.
Thanksgiving approaches, and the weather turns cold and damp.
Jody's always worried about the weather because rain makes the ground muddy, and would prevent him from walking and training Gabilan.
And sure enough, the ground grows soggy and gross and Gabilan's stuck in the barn for a few days, poor thing.
On a morning when the sun actually comes out to play, Jody suggests to Billy that he might let Gabilan roam in the corral while he goes off to school. Surely it won't rain today… right?
Billy agrees that it would do Gabilan good to get some sun and also, the ranch hand is pretty sure the day will be rain-free.
Jody second-guesses the weather a few more times and at last decides to trust Billy's meteorology skills. After all, the dude's a skilled and experienced ranch hand.
So he releases Gabilan into the corral and then shuffles off to school.
Annnnd it rains. Of course it does. It doesn't just rain. It pours. And some old man probably even snores.
At school, Jody stares helplessly out the window as the storm comes. He is trapped there at his desk and all he can do is believe Billy's words that "a little rain don't hurt a horse" (1.97).
When school lets out, Jody runs home as fast as he can. He makes a beeline for the corral and leads a very sad, very soaked and shivering Gabilan back into the barn.
Carl and Billy come home from their day's journey and Jody rounds on Billy: "You said it wouldn't rain…" (1.105).
Billy looks away, in search of an excuse, but knowing he has failed: "A little rain never hurt anything…" (1.112). Strike Two, Billy.
Try as he might to dry off Gabilan, the poor pony's not in good shape.
He'll be fine in the morning, Billy promises. Apparently the ranch hand just doesn't know when to stop writing checks his butt can't cash.
Needless to say, it's a long night for Jody. And in the morning, he rushes straight to the barn.
Gabilan is worse off and has a nasty cough. There is mucus running out of his nose. Gross.
Guilt ridden and shamed, Billy Buck is tending to the pony and yet again assures Jody that it is just a minor cold and his horse is going to be fine.
Jody has no choice—he has to go to school.
It's torture to be away from Gabilan in his time of need and the hours pass miserably.
At last, Jody is released and rushes home to find Gabilan even worse off than before. (Grab some tissues because it's all downhill from here.)
Billy shows Jody a nasty lump under Gabilan's jaw. Billy explains that Gabilan has "strangles" and that when the lump gets bigger, he will have to slice it open and drain the fluid to cure him.
Ever the optimist, Billy says he's seen worse and tells Jody not to worry. Um, Billy, we've heard that one before.
Gabilan shows a little improvement that night, which gives Jody some hope.
But then Jody watches the sky as two blackbirds attack a hawk. Incidentally, the name "Gabilan" means hawk so this is not a good sign.
Jody is so preoccupied with thoughts for his horse that he does not even notice that someone else has done his chores for him.
To his credit, Carl, the stern disciplinarian, tries to cheer up his son by telling stories by a fire that evening. But Jody is all gloom and doom, and Carl's attempts totally crash and burn.
That night, Jody sleeps pretty deeply, as a result of his emotional exhaustion.
In the morning, the lump under Gabilan's jaw is huge and Billy takes a knife and… close your eyes… he cuts it open and all this yellow, poisonous pus comes flooding out. "Now he'll feel better" (1.154), Billy says. Blech.
Jody, tough as nails, hasn't fainted (did you?). He strokes his pony lovingly behind the ears.
That Saturday passes slowly and Jody stays with his horse.
When night falls, he goes to the house to collect some blankets. He does so without asking permission and when he sees his mother, she doesn't even blink an eye.
Jody sleeps in the stable with his sick horse, and in the wee small hours of the morning the boy wakes to the sound of wind rushing through the barn. The doors have burst open and Gabilan is gone.
Jody springs to his feet and catches up with his horse outside. The red pony's in bad shape, so the kiddo wrangles him back inside.
At dawn, Billy Buck comes strolling into the barn and tells Jody he won't want to see this. He has to cut yet another hole in his beloved pony—this time, in his windpipe to allow him to breathe. In other words, it's a pony-tracheotomy.
But Jody's a toughie. He decides to stay no matter how gruesome the operation may turn out to be. He even holds Gabilan's head for Billy.
The knife cuts again and this time it is obviously painful, as Gabilan's kicking and struggling show.
Billy cuts a perfect round hole in Gabilan's windpipe and air and blood come rushing out. At least he can breathe a little easier now. And Jody has done a great job holding the pony steady (and holding himself steady, too).
Later, Jody barely eats dinner. And then, after another long night his mother gives him some steaming mash to give to Gabilan. Aww.
But Jody says the pony won't eat anything and he walks back to the barn without the meal.
Jody's father tries to call Jody away from the barn, telling his son he'd "better come on, out of this…" (1.172).
In a sheer act of defiance, Billy speaks out of turn and yells at his employer, Carl Tiflin. He states that Jody ought to be allowed to stay with Gabilan. It is the boy's horse, after all. Carl walks away, embarrassed.
Jody takes a break from it all and wanders off into the distance, and "A cold wind blew out of the east now, signifying that the rain was over for a little while" (1.178).
While he's roaming, Jody's dog, Doubletree Mutt (now there's a name) comes bounding up to the boy. Jody grabs hold of the mutt and hugs him.
When he returns to the barn, Jody sees "how dry and dead [Gabilan's] hair looked, he knew at last there was no hope for the pony" (1.180). In other words, if you had your fingers crossed until now, well, you might as well uncross them.
Night falls, and Jody lies down with his pony once more. It is a loud and windy night and owls fly through the hayloft.
In the morning, the barn doors are flying wide open again and Gabilan has disappeared.
Jody runs off, following his limping horse's tracks, and finds Gabilan in some brush.
As Jody runs to Gabilan, a buzzard swoops down and lands on the pony. When Jody gets to the scene, he is too late. The buzzard's beak has just ripped out Gabilan's eyeball and its mouth drips with "dark eye fluid" (1.184). Ick.
Jody goes berserk (wouldn't you?) and lunges at the buzzard. He manages to grab its wing before it takes flight and the boy hauls the creature to the ground.
Startled, it vomits out more grotesque fluids while Jody manages to pin it down with his knee. He then grabs a piece of white quartz from the ground and bashes the vulture's brains in. How you doin'? Still conscious?
Jody is physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained but he continues to strike the dead bird until Billy Buck appears and pulls him off.
Jody's father arrives, too, and wipes the blood from his son's face. Carl tells Jody that the buzzard didn't kill Gabilan. Jody knows.
This chapter in Jody's life ends with Billy Buck lifting the boy from the ground, carrying him back home and shouting back to Carl, "'Course he knows it… Jesus Christ! man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?" (1.187).