It is a beautiful spring afternoon and Jody is walking the dusty dirt path home from school. He pretends to be marching at the head of a large army and the sounds of imaginary drums fill the air around the high-stepping boy. In one arm he carries an empty tin lunch pail. Life is exploding with energy in the surrounding pastures and the giddy energy of the season infects the animals. The horses and the sheep pause, however, to watch the marching boy and his column of imaginary soldiers pass. Noticing a horny toad buried in the road dust, Jody draws the column to a halt and makes a successful grab for the tiny beast. The horny toad struggles at first but Jody soothes the creature to sleep by slowly drawing his finger down the toads shiny belly. He places the unfortunate amphibian in his lunch pail and begins to hunt other game. Now he is a big-game hunter, stalking imaginary tigers and bears with an equally imaginary rifle in his hands. By the time he reaches the fork leading to the Tifflin ranch he has two more toads, four grass lizards, a blue snake, sixteen grasshoppers and a wet newt writhing in the bottom of the lunch pail. He forgets his assortment of tiny game, however, when he sees that the red flag is raised on the familys mail box. Inside the mailbox he finds a Montgomery Ward Catalog and a copy of the Salinas newspaper. Jody grabs the mail and his lunch pail and trots over the ridge and through the ranch yard to the house where he calls to his mother who is in the kitchen putting up cottage cheese in a large cotton sack suspended above the sink. Jody begins to look through the Montgomery Ward catalog but stops when his mother tells him that his father would like to see him. Jodys mother is amused when her son immediately assumes he is in trouble for something. She asks him, somewhat mockingly, what he has done to deserve being in trouble but he denies any wrongdoing. He leaves the house to look for his father and winces at the sound of his mothers scream when she opens the lunch pail full of wee beasts. Jody pretends not to hear and makes his way down to the corral fence where his father and Billy Buck are watching the horses. Jody notices that the mare named Nellie is rubbing her hind end on a wooden post by the gate indicating that she is in heat. Jody sidles up next to the men, affecting innocence and nonchalance. When his father tells him that Billy Buck has testified to Jodys dedication and skill in caring for the red pony that had died of illness, Jody realizes he is not in trouble. His father offers to put up the five dollar fee to breed Nelly at the ridge ranch and give Jody the colt if Jody is willing to work off the five dollars. Jody tries to hide his excitement and agrees to the deal. He suddenly feels more adult and that evening he does his chores with unprecedented seriousness and thoroughness. In the course of his work he notices a fat toad but ignores the creature. Later that evening he goes to the corral to watch Nelly and Billy Buck advises the boy that he has a long time to wait for a colt. Jody doesnt mind waiting and is perfectly satisfied when Billy Buck tells him it will be nearly a year. After breakfast the next morning Jodys father pins five dollars inside the pocket of his sons overalls and Billy Buck gives Jody the haltered mare with the warning that she might bite if hes not careful. The mare is skittish but behaves herself during the walk to the ridge ranch. Along the way Jody notices many signs of nature in spring and despite his newly acquired gravity and maturity Jody feels his spirits soar in the fresh air and sunshine. An hour later he reaches the small path that leads up the steeper path to the ridge ranch where he can hear a dog barking. Suddenly Nellie rears and Jody hears the sound of wood splintering and a mans shouts from the nearby barn. Nellie bares her teeth at the boy and Jody drops the reins and takes shelter in the brush. Then a high pitched scream pierces the air and a stallion, trailing a broken halter rope, bursts from the oaks and charges toward the mare. The stallion gallops so rapidly to the mare that he passes her and as he does so she kicks him and he strikes the mare with his front hoof and rakes her back with his teeth. Nellies mood immediately changes and she became docile. The two horses stand shoulder to shoulder. Then Jess Taylor from the ridge ranch appears on his own horse and lifts Jody out of the brush by his overall straps. He explained that Sundog, the stallion, was mean sometimes and might have killed the boy – the horse had broken free and busted the gate just to get to Nellie. Jody observes the male horse and pleads with Jess to get Sundog away lest he hurt Nellie but Jess assures him no harm will come to the mare. He advises Jody to go to the house for some pie but Jody insists on staying since the colt will be his when it is born. “Yes, thats a good thing,” Jess replies, “Carl has good sense sometimes.” Afterward, Jody gives Jess the five dollars and eats two pieces of pie before leading Nellie home. She is so docile that he rides her part of the way. That spring and summer Jody works harder than ever before to make up for the five dollars his father advanced him. He cuts and bales hay and is taught how to milk and given responsibility for one of the cows. Nellie becomes increasingly docile and complacent and does her work with steady and careful steps. She seems to have an air of self-satisfaction and importance. One afternoon Billy Buck interrupts Jody and Doubletree Mutt while the two are outing a gopher and suggests that they take a look at Nellie. Jody follows the ranch hand to the field where Nellie and one of the Geldings are munching the wild oat heads. Billy Buck inspects the mares lips and feels her flaccid teats. Jody impatiently wonders whether she is actually going to have a colt but Billy Buck assures him that it looks as though she might. He reminds the boy that it will be another five months before she shows any signs of pregnancy and at least eight months more before she throws [births] the colt. After that, he tells the boy, it will be two years before Jody can ride the horse. Billy Buck is amused when Jody protests hell be grown up before the horse is ready. “Yep,” he agrees with the boy, “youll be an old man.” Jody expresses his hope that the colt is a stallion and Billy Buck reminds him that his father will insist on it being gelded because stallions are dangerous and undependable. Jody questions Billy closely about the birth process and Billy explains that it will be like with the cows except horses are more sensitive. Upon further prodding he admits that sometimes the colt will have to be destroyed to save the mares life and that all sorts of things can go wrong. But he observes that Nellie had thrown several healthy colts already and that both he and Jody will be there to help. Jody asks Billy to promise that nothing will happen to the colt and Billy knows that the boy is referring to the red pony that died. The ranch hands feelings are hurt and he tells the boy that hell do everything he can but there are no certainties. Billy is cognizant of his loss of prestige in the boys eyes since the red pony died and he walks away from the boy to think things over.
There were two spots on the farm that held special power for Jody. The first was the cool mossy tub just beyond the brush line where the spring water collected. The mossy tub was a place of peace for the boy and when he was angry or upset the patch of green grass and the sound of the trickling water never failed to help him forget his worries. The other spot, the black cypress tree beside the bunkhouse, was a place of foreboding and bad luck. It was under this tree that the pigs were slaughtered and their skins boiled and scraped. Every time Jody helped to slaughter the hogs his heart raced and he felt terrible. Usually he had to visit the mossy spring to recover. After Billy Buck had left him, Jody walked toward the house thinking of Nellie and the colt. In the midst of his reverie he noticed that he was standing below the black cypress and he immediately felt that it was wrong and unlucky to think of his horse while under the dark tree. He quickly walked to the brush line and to the spring from where he could see the ranch buildings and Nellie feeding in the pasture. He daydreamed about the colt – imaging that it grew to be a great black horse that he named Black Demon. The other kids at school would want to ride him but Black Demon would throw them as soon as they were mounted. Jody also imagined that the sheriff would call him to catch criminals with Black Demon and the other participants in a rodeo would give up rather than try to compete against the unbeatable pair. He also imagined receiving a letter from the President of the United States asking that he and Black Demon come to Washington to catch a bandit. Time seems to pass more and more slowly for Jody. He watches Nellie to look for signs of the Colt but when summer has become autumn and she is still the same he begins to lose hope. One morning in September, however, his mother calls him into the kitchen to give him a bucket of dry midlings mixed with hot water and tells him to take it to Nellie. The nervous boy wonders if Nellie is sick and his mother reassures him that the horse was fine – only he will have to take very good care of her in the coming months. Understanding that this means the colt is coming, Jody takes the bucket and runs to the barn where Nellie is playing with the water in the trough. He observes her closely and notices that she has in fact changed – there is a discernable swelling in her belly and she is cautious with her feet. The horse eats the warm mash quickly and rubs her cheek against Jody. Billy Buck tells Jody that Nellie is going to be a nice horse during the next three months and he has to be extra nice to her in return. As if to prove the ranch hands point, Nellie rubs her nose under the mans arm. Billy tells Jody that it will be three months more or less until the colt is born. Jody asks the ranch hand again if he will call him when the time comes and Billy Buck assures the boy that in order to properly raise the colt he will have to be there from the beginning. Furthermore, Jodys father wants it that way. Billy Bucks father had been a government packer and Billy grew up with horses. He tells Jody how he once left a wrinkle in a blanket under a pack horses saddle and the horse had developed a sore. As punishment his father had made him carry a saddle on his own back for many long treks. After that Billy never left a wrinkle in a saddle blanket. Jody is worried and asks Billy to tell him everything that needs to be done during the birth. Billy Buck claims that he was raised on mares milk after his mother died and horses know hes part horse himself. To prove his point Billy asks Nellie if she understands and the mare turns to look him in the eye. Emboldened, Billy assures Jody that he will have the finest horse in the country. On the way back to the house Jody walks with his legs bowed and pretends that he is already riding Black Demon.
Soon winter arrives and cold rain falls on the dark hills and raw fields. Normally Christmas would have been the central day of the season for Jody but this year his world revolves around an indeterminate day in the middle of January when Nellie would birth the colt. Every day he brushes and feeds Nellie and she glows under his care. Jody becomes alarmed to see that her belly is swollen very large but Billy assures him that she is fine and teaches him how to feel the colts movements under the mares taut skin. The first part of January is very rainy and Jody spends all of his free time with Nellie who obviously enjoys the boys presence. One day Jodys father visits the barn and admiring the fine condition of the mare he gives Jody the highest compliment he ever gives to any person: “Youve done a good job” he says and Jody is overwhelmed with pride. When the middle of the month has passed Jody becomes more worried despite Billys reassurances and when the end of the month arrives without the colt Jody becomes almost frantic. His worry is such that on the night of the second of February he awakes from a bad dream with a cry of terror that wakes his mother. He waits until his mother is asleep again and then he pulls on his clothes and steals down to the dark barn. A slight rain falls on the boy as he crosses the barren yard and, once inside the barn, he lights a lantern and is alarmed to see that Nellie is standing and weaving from side to side. He was further upset when she shivers at his touch. Billy Buck, who has been sleeping in a nest of hay in the loft, angrily calls to the boy and tells him to leave the mare alone. When he hears the worry in Jodys voice, however, he softens and again promises that everything is fine and Nellie will have a good colt. As Jody stumbles back through the wet and cold to the house he wishes he believed Billy Buck but ever since the red pony died he cant take the mans word as absolute truth as he did in the past. Jody accidentally kicks a chair on his way through the kitchen and his father wakes and confronts his son. Carl Tifflins anger is assuaged by his approval of his sons diligence when he discovers why he is awake. He reassures the boy that Billy Buck will deliver a healthy colt but Jody protests that the pony died. Carl Tifflin observes: “If Billy cant save a horse, then it cant be saved.”
Just before sunrise Billy Buck, holding a lantern, wakes Jody and tells him to hurry to the barn. Jodys mother calls out in the darkness and asks the ranch hand if Nellies time has come. When he responds “Yes, maam” she tells him that she will heat some water. Jody is dresses so quickly that he is able to follow Billys lantern across the yard to the barn where Nellie is convulses in spasms. As soon as one spasm passes another starts. Jody hears Billy mutter that something is wrong and the ranch hand plunges his hand into the mare and he repeats: “Oh, Jesus, its wrong.” When the spasm returns, Billy strains with all his might but to no avail. The colt is turned the wrong way inside the mare and cannot be corrected. Billy looks at Jody in a strange, questioning manner and then, reaching some sort of inner resolution, he picks up a hammer from the floor and tells the boy to go outside. Jody does not move. Billy walks to Nellies head and cries out to the boy: “Turn your face away, damn you, turn your face.” Jody is stunned but he obeys the mans command and looks away before Billy strikes a hard blow to the horses skull. Jody looks back and sees the man strike the horse again and Nellie falls on her side and is still. Billy jumps on the dead mares stomach and using his sharp knife cuts a long gash in her belly and pulls the colt from inside her. The smell of blood and entrails causes the other horses in the barn to squeal and kick. Using his teeth, Billy tears a hole in the colts white birth sack and uses a knife to cut the umbilical cord. He holds the wet, shivering colt in his arms for a moment and then lays it at Jodys feet in the straw. Covered with blood and gore the ranch hand haltingly tells the boy that he has delivered the colt, there was no other way without killing it. Looking back at the dead mare, he whispers for the boy to get hot water and a sponge to clean the colt the way Nellie would have. When the terror stricken boy does not immediately respond he yells: “God damn you, will you go now for the water? Will you go?” Jody turns and runs across the yard to the house. He wishes he could be glad because now he has his colt but he cannot escape the image of Billys bloody face and haunted eyes.
In this story Jody learns that nothing is certain and sometimes what a person wants is not always what he receives. Just as with the red pony, the promise of the colt causes Jody to abandon his childish ways. He stops pursuing critters like the toads and rises to meet the necessity of working off the five dollars his father has fronted to breed Nellie. Whereas the pony was a gift, however, the colt is by no means a certainty and Jody begins to lose hope before it becomes apparent that she will have a colt. Although Billy had previously lost stature in the boys eyes Jody still asks him repeatedly to promise that the colt will be ok. Having learned from the red ponys death, however, Billy responses are guarded but optimistic. Jody doubts reach a fever pitch when he confesses to his father that he doubts Billys abilities because of the red pony. He then learns that a promise in matters of life and death can never be anything more than a guarantee to do ones best. “If Billy cant save a horse, then it cant be saved” he tells his son. When Billy realizes that he must either destroy the mare or her colt to save the others life he considers his promise to Jody and then proceeds to do his best to save the colt. He does this despite his earlier assertion that in the event of a complication it is normally the colt that is destroyed to save the mare. With Jody looking on, he slaughters Nellie and literally rips the colt from her womb. The sacrifice allows him to keep his promise to the boy but he is deeply affected by Nellies death and the boy perceives that though he has gained a colt he has lost some of his innocence in the process.