On a lazy hot summer afternoon Jody meanders listlessly about the ranch. He is bored. By way of diversion he throws rocks at the mud nests abandoned by the barn swallows and baits a rat trap with stale cheese knowing that Doubletree Mutt, the limping dog, will spring it. Sure enough, a few minutes later the dog goes after the cheese and gets his nose pinched in the trap. Jodys mother hears the whimpering dog and commands her son to find something useful to do. Feeling mean, Jody grabs his slingshot and heads to the brush line with the intention of killing a bird. Although he has shot at plenty of birds he has never hit one. On the way he finds the perfect slingshot stone and places it in the weapons leather pouch. Once at the brush line Jody takes careful aim at one of the birds in the bushes and lets the stone fly. The bird jumps to take flight and the stone crashes into its head killing it instantly. Jody picks up the broken bird and notices that it is much smaller than he thought. The boy is instantly filled with shame when he imagines what a grownup would say of his actions. Using a knife he beheads the bird and cuts off its wings and throws the body parts into the bushes and resolves never to think of the incident again. After drinking from the mossy tub that collects water from the trickling spring Jody lies in the grass and stares at the white puffy clouds passing overhead. He follows them to the west where they disappear over the great mountains that pile up into ever taller, more foreboding peaks on the horizon. To the boy, the great mountains were secret and mysterious – not at all like the Gabilan Mountains to the east which roll gently and hide ranches and settlements in their creases. Jody had once asked his father what was in the great mountains and his father had replied: “Just cliffs and brush and rocks and dryness.” The fact that the mountains were unexplored and uninhabitable makes them all the more frightening and enticing to the young boy. He knows that beyond the mountains lies the sea but the boy is thrilled by the mystery of what lies in their interior. Their mysterious mountains stand in stark contrast to all the familiar and safe things that make up his life at the ranch.
On his way back to the ranch Jody notices that a man is walking on the road from Salinas. The man is headed for the Tifflin ranch and Jody quickens his pace to arrive at the same time. The man is old, however, and Jody reaches the gate before the stranger. As the walker approaches, Jody discerns that he is dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket buttoned to the neck for lack of a shirt. He carries a gunny sack and wears a flat brimmed Stetson hat. He is a paisano, an old Mexican worker, with a thin white mustache that stands out starkly against his tight, leather-brown skin. When he arrives at the gate the old man tells Jody that his name is Gitano and cryptically he states that he has returned. Jody runs to the house and brings his mother who fussily follows her son to the gate. After questioning the old man, who answers in simple utterances, she learns that he was born on their land and lived there with his father as a boy in an adobe house that lies washed out on the far side of the western ridge. Jodys mother feels sympathetic to the paisano but tells him that they dont need any workers. Gitano explains that he can no longer do hard work and repeats that he was born there and has returned. Carl Tifflin and Billy Buck approach and learn of the mans circumstances and plea. Carl Tifflin insists that he cant afford to keep the man around until he dies. Carl offers him supper and a place to stay for that night only. “I was born here,” Gitano replies. Jody is given the job of showing Gitano to a small room in the old bunkhouse. Gitano picks up his sack of possessions and follows the boy to the crudely furnished room where the old man sits on the corn husk bed and Jody, still caught in his afternoon reverie, asks him if he came from the mountains. “No,” is the simple reply. Jody presses the old man who searches his memory and remembers that as a young boy he went deep into the mountains with his father. Jody excitedly peppers Gitano with questions but is disappointed to find that the old man remembers nothing about the mountains except they were peaceful and nice. Jody soon perceives that the old man is weary of his questions and offers to show him the livestock. Gitano follows the boy to the barn. It is almost evening and Gitano and Jody watch five horses walk to the watering trough and begin to drink. After the other horses are finished, a much older, feeble horse painfully makes its way to the trough. Jody explains that this is old Easter, his fathers first horse who is thirty years old. Gitano comments that the horse isnt good for anything anymore. Billy Buck and Carl Tifflin join them and Jodys father, hearing Gitanos words, comments that it would be best to shoot old Easter. Billy Buck, not catching the comparison between Gitano and Easter implicit in his employers remark, defends Easter and states that the old horse has a right to rest after a lifetime of good work. Carl Tifflin laughs and says to Gitano: “If ham and eggs grew on a side-hill Id turn you out to pasture too, but I cant afford to pasture you in my kitchen.” Jody knew that his father was probing for a place to hurt Gitano but the old man remained impassive. After Carl and Billy left, Gitano admitted that he liked Easter but remarked “hes just no damn good.” At the sound of the dinner triangle Jody and Gitano walked to the house. As they walk Jody notices that the old mans posture is that of a young man but his uneven movements and scuffling heels betray his advanced age. Carl and Billy have already begun to eat and Jody quickly slips into his chair but Gitano remains standing with his hat in his hands until Carl notices him and invites him to sit and eat. Carl Tifflin is obviously a bit ashamed of his treatment of the old man and is afraid he might relent and allow him to stay. He probes for a reason not to keep the old man and asks him if he had any relatives. Gitano proudly responded that he had a brother-in-law in Monterrey. Seizing on this information Carl concludes that the old man should go to Monterrey but Gitano simply replies that he was born on the ranch. Carl repeats his ham and eggs joke for his wife and Jodys mother tells him that she wishes Gitano could stay. Carl Tifflin is annoyed and after the meal he broods in the living-room but Gitano returns immediately to his room in the bunkhouse. For awhile the boy listens to his father explain to Billy Buck all the practical reasons why he cant provide for the old man but then, feeling irresistibly drawn, Jody walks across the ranch yard to the old bunkhouse. Jody notices that a thin gleam of light emanates from Gitanos room and the boy opens the door. The old man sits in the rocking chair examining something in his lap which he tries to quickly cover with a piece of deer skin but the cover slips off and Jody beholds one of the most wonderful things he has ever seen. Cradled in the old mans lap is a lean rapier with an intricately carved golden basket hilt. Gitano, obviously annoyed and resentful at having been discovered, quickly wraps the blade in the skin. Jody questions Gitano and the old man admits that he got the rapier from his father but he doesnt know where it came from originally. He seems somewhat surprised when Jody asks him what he does with the weapon and replies that he keeps it and thats all. Gitano tells Jody to leave, that he must go to sleep, and he blows the lamp out as Jody departs. As he walks back to the house in the darkness, Jody knows that he must not tell anyone of the rapier because it would destroy the mystery and beauty of the thing. He tells his father he was checking the rat traps and goes to bed.
The next morning Jody awakens early and is the first person at the breakfast table. Soon Billy Buck arrives and reports that Gitano is not in the bunkhouse but his small sack is still in the room. Jody goes to Gitanos room and after checking to make sure nobody is watching he sneaks inside and looks in the sack. He is disappointed to find that it only contains clothing. Back at the house he hears his father tell his mother that old Easter did not come to drink that morning. Carl Tifflin believes the horse has finally died. That afternoon, however, a neighbor stops by to tell them that he has seen an old man riding Easter bareback and carrying what he believes to be a gun. Carl Tifflin checks his stock and concludes that none of his weapons are missing. The neighbor explains that the curious thing was that the old man and the horse were heading straight into the western mountains. Carl has no desire to pursue Gitano since the old man has saved him the trouble of burying the horse. Still, Jodys Dad wonders aloud why the old man is heading into the mountains. Jody walks to the brush line and stares at the towering mountains for a long time. Finally he is seized by an unknown sorrow and he lies down in the green grass near the spring tub to think.
This story outlines an event that broadens Jodys understanding of mortality and the important element of mystery that surrounds both life and death. The old man Gitano arrives at the ranch seeking his birthplace so that he might live out his days near where he was born. His mission is simple (“I was born here” he offers several times) but shrouded in the greater mystery of life – birth and death. Jodys father, however, looks at the matter practically and concludes that not only can he not afford to keep the old man but it is unreasonable of the man to ask because he has relatives in Monterrey he can turn to for help. Carl Tifflin even makes a joke of the matter when he tells Gitano that if breakfast grew in the fields he could put him out to pasture with the old horse Easter. Jody identifies with the Gitano because the boy too has been the object of Carls ridicule and his father loses some of his respectability by mocking the old man. For this reason, Jody resolves not to tell anyone of the golden rapier that Gitano carries because he knows that the mysterious object will lose all of its fascination if subjected to the practical consideration of his father. While Carl Tifflin draws the parallel between the old, “useless” horse it is Gitano who completes the comparison by taking the horse and leaving on it. Jody, however, is the one who connects the old man, the old horse and the old mountains into a single rumination upon the mystery of life and death. Significantly, the story begins with Jody happily musing upon the undiscovered wonders of the foreboding mountains and ends with the boy saddened by the same mountains since he knows that at least two of its mysteries – Gitano and the rapier – are lost to him forever.