It is a midsummer's afternoon, and Jody is bored. He sets a mousetrap for Doubletree Mutt, then goes to shoot at birds with his slingshot. He kills a small bird, cuts it up, but then hides it, not wanting anyone to discover his waste. He begins to contemplate the great mountains to the west. He once asked his father about the mountains, who tells him that it's mostly unexplored territory. Jody's mother does not have much to say about the mountains either. When Jody asks Billy Buck about the possibility of ancient civilizations living deep within the mountains, Billy responds that if so they would have to feed on rocks. The mystery of the mountains makes them terrible and great to Jody, even in contrast to the gentle Gabilan Hills, to the east, where famous battles against the Mexicans were fought.
Surveying the farmland, Jody sees a figure approaching from the road. It is a lean, straight-shouldered man, who walks in jerks. A childishly embarrassed Jody meets the man, who announces himself as Gitano and claims, "I have come back." Jody's mother comes out and the man tells her that he was born in the ruined little adobe house that still sits on the Tiflin land, and that he wants to stay on the ranch until he dies. Carl Tiflin comes up, and angrily insists that he does not need another farmhand. He consents only to let Gitano stay the night.
Jody shows Gitano to the extra room in the bunkhouse, asking him if he ever went to the Great Mountains. Gitano has, but he remembers little, and quickly grows tired of Jody's questions. Jody then shows Gitano the ranch's animals, noting especially Easter, his father's first horse. Gitano seems to like Easter. Carl comes from the barn, and because he is ashamed of his cruelty to Gitano, continues to be cruel. He notes that it's a shame not to shoot Easter, as it is an old, useless, and miserable horse.
This story concerns two elements: Jody's impulse for adventure, and the arrival of Gitano, a man who represents the rough-hewn pioneer past; both a legend in his own right and a member of the group that was replaced by Jody's own ancestors. In the fourth story, Jody's grandfather will visit the ranch, bringing with him his stories of westward expansion and the frustrations of a generation that wanted to keep going west but were stopped by the Pacific ocean. Throughout The Red Pony, Jody is confronted with iconic images of the west, whether they be horses or old cowboys. As the novel is set at the beginning of the 20th century, the reader must keep in mind that the heroic images of the west will soon be things of the past. Jody slowly becomes aware of this fact, but even as he does the theme itself evolves: as Jody's grandfather seems to suggest in the fourth story in the book, not only will the heroic images of the west cease to be, those images are themselves more myth than reality. The real frontier was one of adventure, but not the romantic ideal Jody believes in.
The arrival of Gitano is a challenge to Carl Tiflin. Gitano makes a claim to the land that stands in opposition to Carl's own claim. Jody is sympathetic to the old man because Gitano represents the adventure that his father discounts—Carl Tiflin is interested in keeping his ranch in business, not in exploring the mountains. Hence "The Great Mountains" continues the theme of friction between father and son. At the same time, the story reinforces similarities between Jody and his father. When Jody's mother chides him for being mean to Doubletree Mutt, Jody just feels meaner because of being ashamed, and throws a rock at the dog. When his father is ashamed of being brutal to Gitano, he reacts by saying another brutal thing. This comparison also highlights Jody's lack of a developed internal conscience: it is his mother who chides him, not himself, and he hides the remains of the bird he mutilates not because he feels sorry but because he doesn't want to get in trouble.
While many such themes continue from story to story, each story could certainly be read as a stand-alone piece. For example, in this first half of the story, there is no mention of Gabilan the horse, save a reference to the Gabilan mountains. As readers, we mustn't expect the four stories to add up to a grand narrative drama, instead we have to pay close attention to the moral themes that are developed over time.