In his earliest memory, Joey (a "gangling, leggy colt . . . not yet six months old") is separated from his mother at a horse sale. He is not sold at once. Finally, a drunken man purchases him for three guineas. Terrified, Joey tries to get away, but he is forcibly restrained and haltered by his new owner and his friends. He is then tied to the back of a cart and taken to a small farm, which is to be his new home.
Joey is left unceremoniously in a stable. His only consolation is that he is housed in a stall next to an old mare named Zoey, who seems kind and sympathetic. After a while, a young boy comes running from the farmhouse with his mother. Albert, who is thirteen, is excited to see the horse his father has brought home. Mother says that Father bought Joey out of spite, to prevent another farmer from getting him, but Albert does not care. He is just happy that Joey is here. He rubs down the colt and brings him food and water. Joey is calmed by the boy's gentle, caring manner. He knows that he has found "a friend for life."
Albert cares for Joey during the following months, training him to walk and trot on command and to come to the sound of his whistle. For the most part, Father ignores the horse. On Tuesdays, when his father comes home drunk from market, Albert finds some pretext to be with Joey so that his father will leave the colt alone. One Tuesday evening, however, Albert must go down to the village church to ring the bells. While he is away, Father approaches Joey with a whip in his hand; he has made a bet with another farmer that he can have the colt pulling a plow before the end of the week, and he intends to win it. In a panic, Joey lashes out with his hooves, striking Albert's father on the leg. The drunken man leaves angrily and threatens to sell the colt straightaway.
The next morning, Albert sternly reprimands his horse,...
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Albert's father takes Joey into the village and sells him for forty pounds to a military officer named Captain Nicholls. Filled with regret, Father begs the captain to make sure that the horse comes to no harm. Before he leaves, he whispers to Joey, "You won't understand and neither will Albert, but unless I sell you, I can't keep up with the mortgage and we'll lose the farm."
Knowing that he is about to be abandoned, Joey becomes frantic, and as gentle hands try unsuccessfully to console him, Albert comes running up. He realizes that his father has sold Joey. Albert asks Captain Nicholls to be allowed to join up, so that he can stay with his horse, but the captain says that he is too young. Captain Nicholls is a kind man, however, and promises that he will take care of the horse personally. As Albert takes leave of Joey, he vows that he will find him again, wherever he may be.
A hard, heavy-handed man named Corporal Samuel Perkins is given the responsibility of training Joey to be a cavalry mount, an arduous process. Captain Nicholls' frequent visits during these days are the horse's only consolation. The captain, an artist, is working on a painting of Joey to send back to Albert. As he works, he talks about the war; unlike many others who are filled with bravado and optimism when thinking about the conflict, he is acutely aware of the harsh realities of battle.
With less than a week before the regiment will be sent to the front lines, Captain Nicholls admonishes Corporal Perkins to be firm but gentle with Joey and to "look after him as if he were [his] own." Joey settles into his training, and by the time he performs his last maneuvers with Captain Nicholls before the entire regiment, he is able to acquit himself well. During the simulated charge, which is the climax of the demonstration, the captain rides alongside his good friend, Captain...
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The next morning, Captain Stewart places Joey under the care of a raw recruit named Trooper Warren. Although the callow youth is not a good horseman, he is kind, "the gentlest of men." The squadron takes part in a few minor skirmishes that autumn, but for the most part, the horses are used for transport rather than cavalry. During the long, grueling marches to which they are assigned, Trooper Warren talks to Joey, telling him that he had been a blacksmith's apprentice before the war and had been forced to join up because someone to whom his father had been indebted had required it.
Winter comes. The horses have little protection from the unrelenting rain, snow, and sleet, but Trooper Warren cares for Joey "with great devotion." Many horses become ill and are carted to the veterinary hospital, never to return, but Joey and Topthorn make it through to the spring. Trooper Warren receives letters from his mother, describing the mundane occurrences of life at home. The young soldier tells Joey about Sally, his girl; when the war is over, he says, he plans to go back and marry her.
One cold night in early spring, the cavalry is sent back to the front. After months of inaction, the soldiers are ebullient, but their mood is quickly tempered when they see the desolation and destruction of the actual battlefield. The squadron passes over trenches and fans out in an echelon in the wilderness of no-man's-land, the vacant area between the opposing armies. As the bugle sounds for the charge, Trooper Warren bravely tells his surging mount, "Do me proud, Joey . . . do me proud."
As the horses and riders race forward, shells begin to rain down on them. Men and animals fall screaming all around them, but Joey and Topthorn manage, with a few others, to get to the twisted barbed wire at the top of the hill. Some of the horses run right into the wire before they can...
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Joey and Topthorn continue transporting the wounded from the front line to the hospital all during that summer and fall. Although their trips back and forth are arduous and often terrifying, for the most part the horses are happy; the soldiers are kind and appreciative toward them. At the end of each day, the little girl, whose name is Emilie, and her grandfather are waiting for them by the stable door. The old man and the child are in charge of caring for the horses when the workday is done, and they perform their tasks with gentleness and devotion. Emilie, "a tiny, frail creature," becomes especially attached to Joey and Topthorn. In the evenings, she leads them about the farm with confidence and talks to them companionably.
The certainty of being with Emilie at the end of each day helps the two horses endure even the most frightful experiences, but one evening, as winter settles in, she is not there to greet them. Her grandfather tearfully tells Joey and Topthorn that the dear child is sick with pneumonia and that the doctor does not know if she will live. Emilie prays each night for her dead father, mother, and brother, all killed in the war. She also prays for her grandfather and the horses; she prays that Joey and Topthorn survive the war and that she will be able to be with them forever.
Snow falls heavily the next day, and the shelling is especially intense. It is Christmas. The wounded men sing slow, mournful carols as they are taken to the hospital. That night, the stars come out, and Emilie's grandfather greets the horses with great relief. Emilie has taken a turn for the better. He gratefully tells them, "All's well . . . all's well."
In the spring, the war suddenly moves away from the area. As they are not needed to transport men from the front, Topthorn and Joey are left to graze in the meadow most of the time. Emilie is still...
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Though his health is permanently compromised that spring, Topthorn somehow manages to survive his illness. Summer brings a respite. There are no battles for the beleaguered horses, and they spend their days grazing idly in the meadow. One day, Topthorn and Joey are put on a detail to pull the ammunition cart up to the artillery lines some miles away. For this assignment, they are placed under the command of a kind old soldier known affectionately as Crazy Old Friedrich.
The work is strenuous, and the horses, who have just begun to regain their strength, are taxed to their physical limit once again. They discover, however, that Friedrich is not crazy at all; he is instead a...
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As Joey limps back and forth across no-man's-land in confusion, he hears calls and cheers from men on both sides. Finally, a soldier in a gray uniform boldly climbs out of one of the trenches, waving a white flag above his head. The soldier is a German, and after clipping through the barbed wire, he approaches Joey slowly, calling to him. A few moments later, another man, dressed in khaki, emerges from the trenches on the opposite side; he is British, as adept with horses as is his German counterpart.
The two soldiers face each other, with Joey standing between them. The German, who speaks a little English, suggests that since he has arrived first on the scene, the horse should be...
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In time, Joey is well enough to return to war. Albert is always with him now, so he is no longer afraid of the guns. The men talk often about the war; Albert's friend David says that the Germans are "about finished" and that the whole disaster could be over by Christmas. Albert tells Joey about home and about his girl, Maisie Brown, who has eyes "as blue as cornflowers, hair as gold as ripe corn," and who bakes bread "like you've never tasted." Though Maisie had cried when Albert had left, she was the only one who had said that he was right to go and try to find his horse.
One awful day, as the battles are winding down, David is killed by a stray shell. Albert is inconsolable. He...
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