Summary and Analysis
The Red Pony - III. "The Promise"
The third section of The Red Pony opens with images of spring and the promise of new life. The afternoon is "green and gold with spring." The plants are tall and the feed is smooth and thick. The odor of the new spring causes the horses to gallop and the lambs and even the old sheep to jump in the air. But Steinbeck's theme of the cycle of life, followed by death, is closely woven into these lighthearted introductory paragraphs. Jody is coming home from school alone, but accompanying him is a "phantom army with great flags and swords, silent but deadly." Jody's imagination and the impatient spring air transform him into a warrior and a hunter. He imagines himself hiding and hunting wild animals, as he silently collects his bounty of three horny-toads, four little lizards, a blue snake, sixteen grasshoppers and a brown newt and puts them in his tin lunch pail.
At home, his imagination is fired with the discovery of a mail-order catalogue in the mailbox, but the promise of indulging in the thick "wish book" evaporates when Mrs. Tiflin tells him that his father wants to talk to him. She also chides him about having a guilty conscience when Jody asks if he's done anything wrong, but she fails to remember what Jody knows well: his father is a taciturn man, seldom talking to his son unless he is disciplining or correcting him. It is with a feeling of uneasiness that Jody approaches his father and Billy Buck, the two of them talking slowly alongside the lower pasture fence.
In "The Gift," when Carl Tiflin first spoke to his son about Gabilan, he used a "stern" tone. This time, Carl wants to discuss the possibility of Jody's having another horse, but, first, he must extract a promise from Jody to work for the horse before he will promise to give his son another pony. It is important to note in this scene that giving Jody another pony was not Carl's idea; it was Billy Buck's. While Carl discusses the promised pony with his son, he says that Billy has said that Jody took good care of the red pony, that Billy has said that Jody has "a good patient hand with horses," and that Billy has said that the best way for Jody to be a good hand with horses is to raise a colt himself. In fact, Billy interrupts Mr. Tiflin to say that "It's the only good way."
Billy has two motives for wanting Jody to have another chance to raise a colt. Billy's credibility has become tarnished; at one time, he seemed infallible to Jody. He was once respected by the boy without question, but since Gabilan's death, he has noticed a change within Jody. The boy has become more independent and more skeptical regarding Billy; the cow-hand hopes to regain Jody's respect once again and, more important, he wants Jody to have another chance to raise a horse of his own. It is important to Billy that Jody learn more than disappointment and defeat in ranching. He alone knows how deeply Jody loved Gabilan and how angered and frustrated the boy was by the horse's seemingly senseless death. Despite Billy's common sense expertise, he is a romanticist; he believes that the two of them, himself and Jody, can recapture their old sense of kinship.
In contrast, Jody's father is a realist, quite businesslike; breeding the mare, Nellie, will cost the Tiflins five dollars. The fee will have to be earned by Jody. He will have to do extra work for the family throughout the summer. Terms must be agreed upon between the two of them, and Jody must further promise to do no complaining during the summer about the extra work or about taking special care of Nellie until she foals her colt.
Jody is mesmerized; Steinbeck describes his leaving his father and Billy by saying that he "slid away." Jody's imagination has ballooned once more; earlier in the story he was merely hunting bears and tigers on his way home from school; now the possibility of owning another colt, a horse of his own has been promised. And he senses that his father, although stating the terms of the promise, is not responsible for his new happiness. He knows that it was Billy Buck who convinced Mr. Tiflin to allow Jody to have one more chance to raise a horse, and he wants to touch Billy as he leaves the two men, but if he did so he would break an unspoken code; he would show a weakness, a softness, and a favoritism if he did so. He lives in a man's world and has learned what softness and coddling can cause; long ago Carl Tiflin implanted the seeds of stern behavior within his son. Jody has accepted the challenge of earning his colt and so he slides away and begins his evening chores with new seriousness, silently and alone.
A renewed sense of striving envelopes Jody; no longer does he simply toss out grain for the chickens; he spreads it far and wide for them. He promises himself that he will not absently catch bugs and reptiles and stuff them into his lunch pail merely to annoy his mother and to break the monotony of the endless days on the ranch. He vows that he will become more of a doer than a dreamer. And he will be patient — even though Billy Buck tells him that it will be nearly a year before the colt is born. He is determined to wait — and warrant — the new colt.
Steinbeck vividly describes Jody's sitting out with Nellie as the two leave to have her bred. Carl Tiflin soberly folds a five-dollar bill in a piece of newspaper and pins it inside Jody's overalls. Then Billy cautions Jody about Nellie's nervous temperament. But both men allow Jody to set out alone with the mare. There is to be no coddling of the boy. And Steinbeck even slips in an aside of humor as he tells us that because the sun was so warm on Jody's back he was "forced to take a serious stiff-legged hop now and then in spite of his maturity." His maturity, of course, is yet to be measured, but Jody does feel a new sense of maturity and certainty. Meanwhile, Steinbeck returns to the pastoral images of the introductory paragraphs of this section, focusing on the meadowlarks singing, the vivid red and black coloring of the blackbirds and, at the same time, blending this pastoral sense with his ever-present sense of foreboding, noting the "restrained grieving" of the wild doves.
The bucolic, dual-toned atmosphere preceding Jody's arrival at the Taylor ranch is a quiet contrast to the wild and violent copulation of Nellie and Sundog. We are as unprepared for it as Jodie is. The stallion's spirit cannot be contained, nor can Nellie. She bares her teeth, defiant of Jody, while Sundog splinters the corral logs to reach the mare. Jess Taylor suggests that Jody go up to the house during the breeding, but Jody refuses to leave and sits behind Jess on the rancher's horse. He will witness this creation of new life. Earlier in this section, the narrator's description of the toad with his "thorny crown" and "spiked halo" echoed the Christian story of death and resurrection, reinforcing the process of rebirth in nature which has lain dormant for many months. Now lusty new life is being created in the animal world before young Jody as he sees Sundog breaking out of the barn and charging down the hill, "his stiff, erected nostrils ... as red as flame."
New evidence of other new life appears throughout this entire section, and later the oneness of all things is again made clear when Steinbeck parallels changes in the animal, plant, and human world. As the colt develops in Nellie's womb, the wild oats in the field are ripening. "Every head bent sharply under its load of grain," he says. Earlier, during copulation, the "wild oat heads were just clearing their scabbards." And now too Jody is maturing: "His shoulders swayed a little with maturity and importance." He no longer trusts Billy Buck as infallible, but, on the other hand, he would like to. He would like to believe in some absolute that he could extract a promise from; for that reason, he repeatedly begs Billy — not Carl not to let "anything happen to the colt."
Jody remains faithful to the promise he gave his father. He drives the farm rake, leads the horse that pulls the tackle, and learns to milk and even is given a cow to care for. These new chores are no burden, however, for Jody marvels at the new life within Nellie and waits as she grows empress-like, her lips beginning to curl in a perpetual smile. And yet, doubt lingers within the young boy; three months have passed and still Nellie shows no sign of increasing girth. Billy notices this nervous expectancy and it is he, not Carl, who suggests one day that he and Jody go together and have a look at the mare. Billy still feels a sense of guilt because of the death of the red pony and he wants to reassure Jody that Nellie is, indeed, carrying a new colt.
While Jody watches, Billy inspects the mare's eyes, feels her lower lips, and fingers her black, leathery teats. He assures Jody that his colt is within the mare, but that it will be five more months before it will be visible to them that Nellie is carrying a colt, and that it will be probably January before she gives birth to the colt. When Jody sighs, Billy does not coddle the boy with any more excessive reassurances concerning the colt; on the contrary, he tells Jody that even after the colt is born that Jody must wait another two years before he can ride the colt. The mere thought of riding the colt, yet unborn, causes Jody to cry out, "Then I'll be grown up" a despair that Billy wisely counters by humoring him with the notion that, yes, he will be an old man by then.
Billy Buck further cautions Jody not to yearn for a stallion. If Jody hopes to keep the colt, his father would insist on gelding him. Stallions, he tells Jody, can never be trusted. Jody, of course, has seen recent evidence of this when he took Nellie to the Taylor ranch to be bred to Sundog. But so eager is he to have a stallion that he has already forgotten; he wants to know innumerable whys — why he can't have a stallion and also how horses are actually born. The birth of a calf, we assume, he has witnessed, but never has he seen a colt born. And when Billy begins to explain the process, Steinbeck again inserts a note of foreboding. Billy begins with a positive statement, then remembering his former mistake concerning his absoluteness about Gabilan, he grows more realistic with Jody, telling him that mares often need more help while giving birth than cows do. Then he pauses as he says, "If it's wrong, you have to–." Then he explains in detail what must be done if a colt is not in the correct position to be delivered. He realizes that perhaps he has said too much and assures Jody that Nellie has thrown good colts in the past and promises Jody again that he will be sure that the boy will be present when the colt is born, but he refuses to promise Jody anything more. He cannot promise that all will go well. He knows that he has lost a lot of prestige he once held with the boy and he is sad. He walks away from Jody, for, as Steinbeck says, "his feelings were hurt."
Steinbeck follows this scene with two paragraphs dealing with the water-tub, the black cypress tree, and the black caldron beneath it. He deals here with the dual imagery of death and life, emphasizing that any vision of life must be subject to death and that a rational man must subject himself ultimately to irrational nature. In "The Gift," Jody climbed the hill to "where the cold spring ran out of its pipe and fell into a round wooden tub. He leaned over and drank close to the green mossy wood "where the water tasted best." It is here, from the spring of life, that he looked at "the great black kettle under the cypress tree." It is from the spring that he pointed his gun (as yet, without bullets) to imaginarily shoot at rocks, at birds, and at the black kettle. Sometimes Jody let the red pony drink from the spring, and when the pony became sick, Jody took a drink from the spring, and the cold made him shiver. It is from here that he saw the two blackbirds dive at the hawk. It is from here that he realized that "the dark cypress tree" had become "a frame for things that were happening." In "The Great Mountains," it was at this spring that he chose to lie down to think of Gitano and the mysterious mountains that filled him with longing and sorrow. Steinbeck says clearly and emphatically that "the water-tub and the black cypress were opposites and enemies." Pig killing frightens Jody, as do the western mountains; the death images are again beginning to accumulate in the narrative, just as is the fear of "something going wrong" beginning to grow within Jody.
When he turns and walks back toward the house, he thinks of Nellie and his colt and finds, suddenly, that he is "under the black cypress, under the very single tree where the pigs were hung." He goes to the spring to counteract any bad influence of the cypress. There he dreams of the colt's being a powerful animal, a horse who can be conquered by only Jody, a horse named Black Demon. With Black Demon, he will help the sheriff rid the countryside of outlaws; at rodeos, he and Jody will be an unbeaten pair at roping and tying. The two will merge into one glorious individual. All these dreams he hopes to entrust to the cooling, trilling water of the spring. But the little stream of water "whines" into the mossy tub. Whining is a sorrowful sound and, even at the spring, Jody finds himself in the presence of death and mystery.
Nellie's unborn colt seems to exist only in Jody's imagination as the summer passes and the autumn burns chilly. It is only when Jody's mother, without warning, urges Jody to watch her mix boiling water into a bucketful of dry midlings that the colt's birth seems truly eminent. His first thoughts, although excited happy ones, contain an element of doubt about Nellie's health, but his mother reassures him that the mare is fine, but from now on, Jody will need to spend extra time with her and that she will need better care.
At the barn, he is also reassured by Billy Buck, who also tells him again that Jody's father wants the boy to witness the birthing of the colt from the beginning. Jody's exuberance is infectious. Billy's imagination is rampant; laughing, he conjures up tales about himself being raised on mare's milk and being half-horse himself. The two share a warm, close togetherness, and Billy boasts that he'll "see that you get a good colt. You'll have the best horse in the country." This is a promise said lightly, one that Billy will fulfill, however, after a long and bloody struggle with his conscience and with the mare.
Christmas comes and goes and Jody senses no special excitement because of the season — all of his anticipation focuses on the birth of the colt, as does Billy Buck's. Billy even teases Jody with the idea that Nellie might have twins, as he guides the boy's hand over the mare's swollen abdomen. All of this dreaming, however, is dampened by two weeks of steady rain early in January.
In an unusual moment of sympathy for the worried boy, Carl Tiflin tells his son that he has truly done a good job taking care of Nellie. For hours, Jody's pride in himself and belief in Nellie and her colt is revived. But after two weeks linger on and the mare has still not given birth, there are signs that this will not be an easy birth.
The night that Jody slips out to comfort Nellie, the images of the thick black night, the cypress tree, and the mist encompass him. And when he begs Billy to promise that he "won't let anything happen," Billy growls at him to stop worrying. This time he refuses to promise that the mare or its colt will survive; he uses a tone of voice with Jody that the boy has never heard before and the old cow-hand realizes this and quickly, against his intuition, reassures Jody that he told him that he'd get him "a good colt" and that he will.
Promises, however, are not enough for Jody any longer. Billy was wrong before. And when his father confronts him on returning to the house, Jody blames Billy for the red pony's death. Carl will hear none of his son's accusations about the hired hand. "If Billy can't save a horse," he lectures to his son, "it can't be saved."
As Jody waits for the colt, the seasons offer little resistance to one another; the hills lose their straw color and blacken and new grass starts before Christmas. The transition from autumn to winter to new spring occurs in an orderly and easy way, the old foliage giving way to the new seedlings without any pain or struggle. This, however, is not always the case with animals or humans. Parturition is often accompanied with anxiety, pain, and sorrow, but usually the mother survives to nurse and care for her offspring. Here, this is not the case.
Jody is close to Nellie as she writhes in spasms, trying to force the colt from within her, and Billy is quick to tell Jody that "it's wrong," meaning that the colt is turned the wrong way in the womb. The old cow-hand knows what must be done — and done quickly — and orders Billy to turn his head away while he smashes Nellie's head with a hammer and uses his big pocketknife to rip open her belly and drag out the colt which he promised Jody.
Thus the story ends with the terrible burden of Jody's realization that he has unconsciously forced Billy to kill the magnificent mare in order to keep his word to the young boy. The emphasis of this story lies, therefore, in the interrelation ships between two human beings, not merely in Jody's exposure to birth and life and death. Here, we witness Jody's growing awareness of other people. Of course, the framework of the pervading plot lies in the birth of the colt and the death of the mare, but Steinbeck utilizes these as vehicles by which he makes a subtle but strong statement about human relationships.
When Billy Buck was forced to kill the mare in order to save the colt that he promised Jody, Jody at last realized his own selfishness: "He tried to be glad because of the colt, but the bloody face, and the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him." Billy Buck's silent suffering and Jody's guilt are far more important in this section of The Red Pony in recording Jody's growing maturity than either the death of Nellie or the birth of the new colt. The self-centeredness of a boy is giving way to an awareness of the needs of other people.