The Red Pony
The Gift—Part 3
The following day Jody mopes through school. When he gets home, Gabilan seems worse. He helps Billy "steam" the horse by fastening a packet of steaming mush to the horse's snout, hoping the treatment will clear its breathing passages. Billy explains that eventually he will have to cut open the sack of puss below Gabilan's jaw in order for the horse to heal. Jody goes to bed very worried, in spite of his parents' assurances that Billy is as good as any horse doctor in the country. The next morning, Billy tells Jody that Gabilan is better, but upon seeing the horse Jody disagrees. Billy begins sharpening his knife, explaining that he has to open the sack of puss now. He sharpens his knife very carefully, and soon the puss is running out.
For a while, the horse seems to be better, but as Jody spends the day with him, he remains worried. Doubletree Mutt tries to enter the barn, but Jody throws a rock at him in his foul mood. He spends the night in the barn, waking up in the middle of the night to find that a storm has blown the stable door open and that Gabilan has wandered outside. Jody ventures out into the night and retrieves Gabilan, who is now sickly, wheezing. The next morning Billy tells Jody to leave, because he has to do something unpleasant to the horse. Jody stays though, and Billy begins to sharpen his knife again. Jody holds the pony's head while Billy cuts a small breathing hole in Gabilan's neck. For a while Gabilan breathes better. Jody spends the day swabbing the hole, keeping it open. Jody's father enters to tell Jody to leave the barn and the pain of what he is doing, but Jody refuses and Billy irritably agrees with his decision. Carl walks away, his feelings hurt. At midday Jody wanders outside for a while, skipping lunch. He makes up with Doubletree Mutt, pulling a tick from the dog's neck and squashing it between his fingernails.
Jody wakes the next morning to find the pony gone. He goes outside, and follows Gabilan's tracks into the hills. Over a ridge, he sees buzzards circling. He knows they are waiting for the moment of death. When Jody tops the ridge, he sees Gabilan, lying in a clearing as the buzzards descend. He races down the hill, and reaches the clearing in time to see one of buzzards land on the horse's head and bite at the dead horse's eye. Filled with rage, he dashes into the circle of carrion, grabbing the buzzard on Gabilan before it can take off. It is as big as he is, but he wrestles it to the ground, holding onto its wings and beatings its head with a rock. He continues striking the head after the buzzard is dead. Carl Tiflin and Billy rush up and pull the boy away. His father scolds him for his unnecessary violence, but Billy furiously asks Carl whether he knows how Jody must feel.
This section is gruesome. When Billy cuts open the sack of yellow puss, when he carves a breathing hole in the horse's windpipe, and when Jody kills the buzzard, Steinbeck reports these events with laconic accuracy. This style only makes the events more real to the reader. Steinbeck does not describe Jody's emotional reactions, but it is easy for the reader to guess how he must feel; indeed, Steinbeck's sparse, realistic descriptions allow the reader to take on Jody's emotions.
Billy Buck twice defies Carl Tiflin out of sympathy for Jody's feelings. In a way, Billy's outrage at Jody's father is the best window we have into understanding how deeply Jody must feel. These moments bring Billy closer to Jody, but they also reveal Billy's guilt at letting Jody down. It is difficult to guess which man Jody feels most estranged from. His father doesn't understand his feelings at all, but at least he didn't disappoint Jody in the way that Billy did.
The death of Gabilan is actually an introduction of death into Jody's life. In fact, it is a double introduction, as Jody also discovers his capacity to kill, as he does to the vulture. The tension between Billy and Carl after Jody kills the vulture is intense, and it is normal for the reader to side with Billy on the side of Jody. Yet Carl does have a point; there is something disturbing in Jody's retributive killing of the vulture. It is not the vulture's fault that Gabilan died; the vulture simply is a carrion eater. Though Jody does not realize it, and for that matter, neither does the reader, Carl's disgust of Jody's blind hatred of a carrion eater simply doing its job has merit, and displays a moral universe far more complex than that of which Jody is aware. After Gabilan, the theme of death and loss is constantly reexplored in The Red Pony through the story of Gitano, the birth of the young colt meant to replace Gabilan, and, metaphorically, in the story Leader of the People.
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