The Red Pony: Novel Summary: Story 4 – The Leader of the People

One March afternoon, Billy Buck is using a rake to pitch the last of the usable hay from the old years haystack to some of the cows. There are white puffy clouds in the sky and the sound of wind on the ridges that cannot be felt in the declivity where the ranch is sheltered. Jody emerges from the house eating a piece of buttered bread and crosses the yard to where Billy is working. On his way, Jody picks up a stone to throw at a cat but when the animal flees under the porch the boy throws the stone at the black cypress tree causing the roosting pigeons to take flight. Jody asks Billy if he can use the dogs to kill the mice living in the remaining, soggy hay and Billy surmises that the boy could probably do that. Jody relishes the thought of killing the fat, sheltered mice that have lived all year in the safety of the hay. Billy Buck advises the boy to ask his father first and Jody is disappointed to learn that his father is visiting another ranch. Jody knows that his father will approve but also knows that he must first ask permission. Jody watches Doubletree Mutt dig for a squirrel and then sees the dog raise its head and look where the road emerges from a cleft in the surrounding hills. Carl Tifflin, Jodys father, comes riding his horse and Jody sees that his father carries a letter. He runs to the house to be on hand when his father arrives knowing that the letter will be read aloud. As he enters the kitchen he tells his mother that theyve received a letter. When Carl enters a moment later Mrs. Tifflin asks him who has written. Jodys father frowns and wonders how his wife knew there was a letter and she replies that “Big-Britches” (motioning toward Jody) told her. Jody is embarrassed and Carl observes that Jody is too nosy for his own good. Carl hands the letter to his wife, telling her it is from her father, and she uses a hairpin to open it. The letter has arrived late and the family learns that they should expect the old man for a visit that very day. When Jodys mother sees that her husband is annoyed by the news she becomes angry and questions him closely. He admits that her fathers ceaseless talk of the “old days” bores him. He petulantly explains that all her father ever talks about is the wagon train he led from the East in his youth and the dangerous trek through Indian infested country to the coast. Carl protests that he has heard the old mans stories countless times and they are always the same. When Mrs. Tifflin points out that all her father has are his memories Carl admits that he has seen the old man looking helplessly at the sea, wishing there were more west to be conquered. However, he angrily asserts that if the old man becomes too boring he will sit with Billy in the bunkhouse. Jody does his chores carefully but with speed and returns to the house where his mother is brushing the stove top with a turkey wing. He asks his mother if she thinks that Grandfather would like to be met on the road and when she speculates that he would Jody departs. He whistles to the dogs and sets off for the ridge but quickly loses the dogs when they run off to chase a rabbit. At the top of the ridge Jody pauses to take in the enormous green valley and the town of Salinas in the distance. Looking closely he perceives a man on a horse-drawn cart making his way along the road. He watches the old man get down from the cart in order to lead the horse up the hill. Jody runs to meet his grandfather but slows to a more respectable pace before the old man sees him. The grandfather wears a black broadcloth suit and, a slouch hat and has white whiskers. His every step seems permanent and when he stops it seems as though he will never move again. Jody greets his grandfather who is happy to see him. The boy invites the old man on the mouse hunt he plans to undertake the following day and Grandfather is amused that mice are the only things people have to hunt any more. He pretends to be relieved to hear that only the dogs eat the mice and when Jody observes that hunting mice is probably nothing like hunting Indians his grandfather remarks that when the soldiers killed the Indian women and children in their villages it was much like hunting mice. Jody is proud that his grandfather notices that he has grown since his last visit and he tells the old man about Riley the boar who was killed when the haystack and fell on him. “Riley was a nice pig, for a boar, sir,” Jody observes, “I rode him sometimes and he didnt mind.” Jodys mother comes from the house to greet her father and both Carl Tifflin and Billy Buck approach as well. Billy Buck holds the old man in high esteem and has shaved for his arrival. Billy takes Grandfathers horse to the barn and the old man observes, apparently for the thousandth time, that Billy is a good boy and that he knew Billys father: “Old Mule-tail Buck” he calls him. “I never knew why they called him Mule-tail except he packed mules.” Carl asks the old man how long he will stay and the grandfather replies that he figured on staying for two weeks, though he admits that he always leaves sooner than he intends. At dinner the grandfather cuts his steak into small pieces and remarks that the trip has made him hungry. Billy agrees and relates that his father and he could eat a great deal of meat when they were traveling. The Grandfather repeats his observation about Billys father and then launches into an oft-told story about the shortage of meat on the trek west. As the leader he had to make sure that the settlers didnt slaughter the oxen for sustenance. When the old mans story is interrupted by an errant insect, Carl reminds the old man to finish his meal. Later, as they all sit in front of the fireplace, Jody watches as the old mans face relaxes and he begins to tell a story of the trek. He asks if the group has heard about the time a group of Indian thieves stole thirty-five of the settlers horses. Carl maliciously interrupts and informs the old man that theyve heard the story many times. The grandfathers feelings are hurt and after a period of silence Jody asks to be told about the Indians. Grandfather observes that it was a job for men but now only boys want to hear about it. When he asks the group if theyve heard his story about how he wanted to use iron plates as defense against the Indians on the trail the adults remain silent and Jody responds that they have not heard the story. During the story, which they have all heard many times, Jody notices that none of the adults are listening. The grandfathers voice is monotonous and Jody thinks that perhaps the old man is bored of it as well. Afterward, Billy stands to leave and listens to another story about a ball and cap pistol before he departs for the bunkhouse. Carl Tifflin makes some conversation about the weather before telling Jody that he ought to go to bed. Before he leaves, Jody asks if he can kill the mice in the old haystack and his father readily gives permission. Before he falls asleep Jody imagines the world of seemingly giant men that lived in his grandfathers day, crossing the plains and killing Indians. Then the boy hears the sound of one of the dogs scratching fleas before he finally drifts off to sleep. The next morning Jody is up before breakfast. He tells his mother that he and grandfather are going to kill the mice and she observes that he must always have a partner in his crimes. He goes out into the cool clear morning where the cats are mewing for milk after hunting gophers all night. The dogs accompany Jody to the scrap pile where the boy salvages an old broom handle and some string and a bit of wood to fashion a flail. The dogs understand that he will use this to drive the mice into their jaws and they jump in anticipation. Billy Buck sees him headed toward the hay and calls him back to the house for breakfast. Jody excitedly observes that the mice have no idea what will happen to them that day and Billy Buck philosophically observes that nobody ever does. The thought impresses the young boy and momentarily he forgets his desire to kill the mice. Carl Tifflin is already at the table but Grandfather has not finished grooming himself. Jodys dad makes a sarcastic remark about the old mans fastidiousness and his wife orders him to stop. Carl, upset by his wifes tone, remarks that the old man made it across the plains but now that is over and nobody wants to hear about it anymore. Just then the kitchen door opens and the grandfather enters. Carl knows that the old man has heard him and begins to apologize and retract his remarks. Jody is embarrassed for his father and feels awful. Grandfather agrees with his son-in-law that perhaps the past should be forgotten and he claims that he isnt sorry to hear that his stories are a nuisance. Jodys father is ashamed and leaves the table to begin work. Jody makes sure that his grandfather knows that he wants to hear the stories and then tells him he will wait outside for him with the stick for the mice. Eventually the grandfather emerges into the yard but he refuses to accompany Jody and chooses to watch the action while sitting by the house. Jody tries to work up enthusiasm to kill the mice but he cannot and returns to the old man sitting sadly alone. His grandfather begins to speak. He says that he wants to leave after what Jodys father said and he feels that the crossing wasnt worthwhile. He tries to impart to the boy some sense of what it was like to be at the head of a great mass of humanity surging westward. He claims that the Indians and the hardships were nothing compared to the feeling of the journey. He remarks that he should be telling people about the urge to move instead of the stories. Jody claims that he would like to lead some people someday and his grandfather tells him there isnt anywhere left to lead them and that his father is right – the trek is over and best forgotten. Jody feels sorry for his grandfather and offers to make him a glass of lemonade. The old man initially refuses but, seeing the desire to please in his grandsons eyes, he agrees that a glass of lemonade would be good. Inside, Jodys mother first thinks her son is sick when he claims that he only wants to make lemonade for grandfather and not for himself but then she too sees the look in his eyes and offers to help.
In this story Jody learns empathy and that his father is capable of mistakes. Jody begins the story childishly anticipating the opportunity to engage in a “mouse hunt” which has brought him malicious joy in the past. This time, however, his grandfathers visit places the killing of the helpless creatures into the context of his fathers disdain for the older mans stories and his wounded pride. Jody realizes that not only is his father wrong to mock his grandfather but that his grandfathers adherence to the past does not make him worthy of derision. Jodys patience pays off because he learns that his grandfathers true passion lay not in killing Indians or riding west but in leading a mass of people who were all focused on a single goal – to go west. Jody understands his grandfathers passion and consoles the old man by offering to become a “leader of the people” as well. When this fails to cheer up the old man Jody offers instead the very simple and selfless gift of a glass of lemonade. Both the grandfather and his mother understand that this gesture makes Jody worthy of leadership and manhood.