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The Red Pony

The Red Pony

by John Steinbeck

The Red Pony The Promise Summary

  • It's midafternoon on a spring day, and Jody's walking home from school. He imagines he's leading a great gray army into battle. As he marches, his imagination gets away from him when he spots a toad in the bushes.
  • He picks it up, rubs its belly and marvels as the toad falls asleep, and then the boy puts the toad in his lunch tin, because that's where toads belong.
  • Along the way home, he collects a various number of other animals and throws them in the tin as well. It's quite the collection.
  • Jody arrives at his mailbox and finds a catalog inside. He goes to the house and gives his mother his lunch tin and the catalog.
  • Mrs. Tiflin tells him that his father wants to see him at the barn. Jody runs off, forgetting about the animals inside his lunch tin until he hears his mother scream. Guess she found 'em.
  • At the lower pasture, Jody finds his father and Billy Buck hanging out by the fence.
  • Carl tells Jody that Billy seems to think the boy did a fine job with Gabilan before he died. Gee, how comforting.
  • Carl goes on to say that their neighbor, Jess Taylor, has several good colts and for the whopping sum (well it was whopping back then, anyway) of five dollars, they could mate their mare Nellie with one of them so that Jody could have another colt.
  • Hooray. Jody promises to work off the money and the matter's settled. One colt, coming right up.
  • Jody does his chores and then listens to his mother yell at him for bringing home all kinds of disgusting animals in his lunch tin. Jody totally cops to his childish behavior, but now he's feeling majorly mature, since he'll have a colt to raise.
  • The next morning, after breakfast, Jody walks their horse Nellie to Jess Taylor's farm for mating.
  • On the way, a great big buck of a stallion comes charging toward them. Nellie freaks and tries to bolt, causing Jody to lose of her halter.
  • He ducks for cover in the bushes while the stallion comes at Nellie and bites her neck. This calms Nellie some and the two horses get down to business. Avert your eyes.
  • Jess Taylor arrives and assures the kiddo that both horses will be fine and that he should go get some pie at his house.
  • But oh look, the horses seem to be done. That was fast. Jody politely walks Nellie to the Taylor ranch, hands over the five dollars, accepts two pieces of pie and heads home again.
  • Now the waiting game begins.
  • It'll take a while, maybe up to five months, Billy says, before they can even tell if Nellie's knocked up. And it'll be another three months after that before the colt is even born.
  • Jody asks Billy how the birth will be, so the ranch hand tells him that Nellie's "thrown good colts" (3.84) before so it shouldn't be a problem.
  • But sometimes, the ranch hand has to get in there and cut the colt to pieces to get it out—in order to save the mare. Ugh.
  • Billy assures Jody that that won't happen this time. And we all know how right on Billy is with his assurances.
  • When Jody begs the ranch hand to let him be there at the birth, Billy's on board. But it's going to be a long time before that happens… if it even happens at all. They don't even know if Nellie's preggers.
  • Jody wanders off and finds himself at the brush line behind the house, which is a place he comes to a ton. He feels cleansed there, because there's a pipe that always flows into a green tub, but he's also kind of grossed out by the place, because it's where they slaughter pigs.
  • Jody thinks about the many pigs he has seen killed and about the wholesomeness of the water. He reflects on how both images are complete opposites of each other. Smart kid.
  • Jody goes on to fantasize about how it will be when his colt is born. He's totally gonna name it Black Demon and help out the sheriff and win all the roping contests and answer the President's call for help and… in other words, he's basically daydreaming about being John Wayne (before John Wayne was around).
  • Back in reality though, time passes more slowly than a dentist appointment. It's September before they can say for sure that yes, Nellie's expecting.
  • Jody begins taking extra special care of Nellie but it'll still be another three months before she gives birth.
  • The boy makes Billy promise again that he'll be allowed to be there when it happens. Billy tells Jody he wants him there from the start. It's the only way to learn.
  • Billy tells Jody, "Why I'm half horse, myself, you, see," (3.118). It's true, just a second ago, Billy had nonchalantly nibbled on Nellie's ear.
  • The ranch hand tells Jody that when he was young, he lived in the mountains and there were no cows around. Only horses. So he drank mare's milk. And this is what makes him such an excellent horse trainer. The horses see him as one of them. Weird? Yes, but we'll roll with it.
  • "And if you do what I say," Billy brags, "you'll have the best horse in the country" (3.119).
  • Jody's relieved. He knows that both he and Nellie and the unborn colt are in good hands with Billy Buck. Apparently, Jody has no memory of the poor red pony tragedy but whatever. Billy means well, and youngsters aren't long on memory, it seems.
  • Here comes the rain again. Falling on your head like a memory.
  • It rains for the first two weeks in January and a feeling of foreboding is definitely in the air.
  • Mid-January turns to late January and still the colt has not come. Jody demands to know if the colt is all right, and Billy's all, "patience, grasshopper."
  • On the night of February 2, Jody wakes up startled and crying. His mother calls for him to "Wake up and start over again" (3.134).
  • But there is no starting over. Jody gets out of bed and slips some clothes on and creeps out into the night in his bare feet.
  • He goes to the barn and calls to the extremely pregnant mare "So, Nellie, so-o, Nellie" (3.136). The horse is standing in her stall and weaving from side to side.
  • Billy Buck calls down from the hayloft, telling Jody to go back to bed and he'll get him if it starts.
  • Sadly, Jody walks back to the house.
  • In the kitchen Jody stumbles and wakes his parents in their bedroom. Jody apologizes and says he only wanted to see the mare. Carl tells Jody "there isn't a man in this country that knows more about colts than Billy" (3.150).
  • Jody bursts out, "But the pony died—" (3.150). Carl explains that that wasn't Billy's fault. He says, "If Billy can't save a horse, it can't be saved" (3.151).
  • Speak of the devil, here Billy comes running into the house. The colt's on his way.
  • Jody jumps up and runs with Billy back to the barn.
  • Nellie's whole body is in spasms. Something's wrong. Billy says so.
  • The ranch hand says that he can't turn the colt, and that it won't be able to come out the way it's positioned inside the mare.
  • He makes up his mind in an instant. It's the only way.
  • He tells Jody to go outside.
  • Jody doesn't move.
  • Billy tells him again.
  • But Jody won't budge.
  • Billy screams for Jody to turn away, and when the kid does (all you squeamish folks out there, you might want to follow suit), Billy takes his hammer and savagely beats Nellie over the head with it.
  • The horse hits the ground. Dead.
  • Okay, we did not see that coming.
  • Billy jumps to the dead horse's stomach and slices violently through her belly. What comes next is gruesome, bloody, and horrible. Don't say we didn't warn you.
  • "The air filled with the sick odor of warm living entrails" (3.170).
  • When the hole is properly cut, Billy dives in with both arms and pulls out a "big white, dripping bundle" (3.171).
  • The ranch hand rips open the covering and a newborn baby colt pops his head out.
  • Billy cuts the umbilical cord and lays the newborn colt in the straw at Jody's feet.
  • Billy tells Jody that he had promised him the colt and there it is. Then he tells the kid to go get some warm water to wash the newborn horse.
  • Jody stands speechless, prompting Billy to full on yell at him. Jody hops to it.
  • As he runs to the house, Jody tries to be happy about the colt but can only picture the "haunted tired eyes of Billy Buck" (3.175).
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