Steinbeck's "The Red Pony" is divided into four parts: "The Gift," "The Great Mountains," "The Promise" and "The Leader of the People." Each story reflects on key moments in Jody's (the young protagonist) childhood.
In "The Gift," Jody's beloved pony dies. In this story, the death of the horse is earth-shattering for the boy, but perhaps even more unsettling is the fall of his hero, ranch-hand Billy Buck. Before the death of the pony, Jody idolized Billy. But twice Billy proves to be wrong about the horses health. The pony dies. When Jody discovers the body being eaten by buzzards, Jody lashes out and battles the enormous bird.
It is not really the buzzard on whom Jody is unleashing his wrath: it is the despair he feels in the realization that no one can be counted on completely, not even Billy. Witnessing Jody's outburst, his unfeeling father pulls the boy away: "Jody," he expalined, "the buzzard didn't kill the pony. Don't you know that?" "I know it," Jody said wearily.
In final installment, "Leader of the People," Jody must make another mental leap into maturity. When the story begins, Jody is pleased that his grandfather is coming to visit. Like his admiration for Billy Buck, Jody looks up to his grandfather.
When Jody's father inadvertently humiliates the old man, who revels in past glories, it is Jody who takes on the task of trying to soothe his grandfather's wounded pride. He watches with sorrow as his once-idolized hero is taken down. Jody learns that people need to be needed. In a final act to show he understands, Jody selflessly denies himself lemonade. He has matured and has become more sensitive to others, leaving the self-centeredness of childhood forever behind.