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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

Jody Tiflin is a shy, polite, ten-year-old boy, the only child of the Tiflins, who own a small ranch in the Salinas Valley. Billy Buck, the ranch hand, is almost a part of the family and has Jody’s highest respect.

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One late summer day, Carl Tiflin and Billy drive six old milk cows to Salinas to the butcher. Jody would like to go along, but school has resumed. Before setting out on the mile walk to school, Jody walks up to the sagebrush tine to the spring, and then to the cypress tree where pigs are butchered. On the verge of adolescence, Jody is beginning to lose his childish pleasure in smashing muskmelons or killing mice. He yearns for greater excitement and responsibility.

The two men return late that evening with a gift for Jody, a red colt. However, rather than present the gift immediately, Jody’s father only tells Jody to go to bed, that he will need Jody in the morning.

After breakfast the men take Jody to the barn to show him the pony. The insensitive Carl Tiflin abhors any weakness or sentimentality and seems cross and embarrassed about giving his son the gift, but Billy Buck comprehends the boy’s elation. Jody names his pony Gabilan, after the mountains next to which they live.

Jody’s life now so revolves around Gabilan that he sometimes forgets his chores, but with this new responsibility, he begins to develop greater maturity. Under Billy’s guidance, Jody takes good care of the pony and begins to train him. Billy seemingly knows all there is to know about horses, and in the evenings he even braids a tail-hair rope for Jody. The pony produces a strong bond between Jody and Billy.

Carl says that by Thanksgiving Gabilan will be big enough to ride, so in eager anticipation of the great day Jody begins to saddle him daily. Winter is approaching, and Jody leaves Gabilan out in the sunny corral as much as possible. On a day when Billy assures Jody that it will not rain, Jody leaves the pony out in the corral when he goes to school. It does rain, however, and when Jody gets home, Gabilan has taken cold.

For the first time, Billy has failed Jody. However, he assures the boy that Gabilan will get well, and he nurses the pony skillfully. The next day, however, Gabilan is worse, and by the second day Billy admits that Gabilan has “strangles” and is a very sick pony. Billy and Jody take turns sleeping in the barn and nursing Gabilan, but the pony does not get better. Billy lances the pony’s throat to drain the pus, and for a few hours the pony is more spirited. However, congestion returns, and later Billy must open a hole in Gabilan’s windpipe so he can breathe. Gabilan seems better again, but while Jody naps in the hay that night, the barn door blows open and the red pony runs out into the winter wind.

By the next morning, hope has faded. Jody is sent to breakfast but instead goes to the dark cypress tree—a place associated in his mind with death—to think. He returns to the barn and waits all day with Gabilan, but while he sleeps that night, the barn door again blows open. When he awakes at dawn Gabilan is gone. Jody rushes from the barn and follows the pony’s tracks up the ridge; in the sky he sees buzzards beginning to circle. He runs up the hill into the brush, and in a clearing he finds his pony in the throes of death, buzzards awaiting their moment.

Just as the first buzzard alights on the pony’s head and sinks its beak into Gabilan’s eye, Jody plunges into the circle of birds and grabs the buzzard by the throat. With a rock he smashes the bird’s head; he is still beating the bloody bird when Carl and Billy come over the hill. Jody’s father is cool and distant as always, reminding Jody that the buzzard did not kill Gabilan. Billy Buck, however, lifts Jody into his arms to carry him home. Only Billy understands how Jody feels.

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