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Jody Tiflin is the main character and protagonist of the novel. When the book begins, he is a typical, young boy of ten years of age. He goes to school but is not very interested in his studies. He would rather be outside chunking rocks, using his slingshot, or capturing lizards and grasshopper. His favorite pastime, however, is to take his rifle and aim it at things, as if he were shooting; it is his father's rule that he will not be allowed to actually shoot the gun until he turns twelve. Although Jody has been given chores, such as filling the wood box and gathering the hens' eggs, he often has to be reminded to do them and frequently does them carelessly.
Jody's parents are very different. Although his mother chides him about his chores and calls him "Big Britches," she is quiet, kind, and supportive of Jody. In contrast, Mr. Tiflin seems like an insensitive father who does not take the time to know or understand his son. He is largely pictured as a stern disciplinarian who enforces many rules and frequently punishes; he is determined that Jody will grow up to be a responsible and independent man, capable of running the ranch. Since Jody does not often spend time with Mr. Tiflin, he turns to Billy Buck, the ranch-hand, as a substitute father. When the boy has questions or problems, he usually takes them to Billy.
In fact, it is Billy who convinces Mr. Tiflin that Jody should have a pony of his own. He feels that raising a horse will teach the boy responsibility. Billy's suggestion is obviously a wise one, for once Jody receives Gabilan, he begins to assume responsibility. He gets up without being called in order to care for his colt; he remembers to do his chores without being told. He also does them with greater care. Additionally, Jody learns from Billy Buck how to take care for the little pony; he even goes to extremes, overprotecting Gabilan.
Billy has always been Jody's "hero," as well as his friend and substitute father. As a result, Jody trusts him completely. When he asks Jody to leave Gabilan out in the corral and promises good weather, Jody agrees without question. Unfortunately, the weather turns bad and the overprotected colt gets drenched and catches cold. Despite the many efforts that Billy and Jody make to help the colt improve, nothing works. One night, Gabilan gets out of the barn and goes off alone to die. Jody is greatly pained over the death of his colt and blames Billy; however, experiencing death first-hand and feeling the pain of loss help Jody to mature.
Several times in the novel, it is clear that Jody, by nature, is very different than his cold stern father. Jody loves to look at the mysterious mountains to the west and wonder about all the wonderful things contained in them; he even romantically imagines strange, lost cites. When Jody questions his father about the mountains, Mr. Tiflin abruptly answers with a terse explanation; the mountains should be avoided, for they are filled with steep cliffs and dangers. The difference in their attitudes about the mountains is a clear reflection of their differences about life. When Gitano comes to the ranch, Jody again shows that he is very different than his father. The boy appreciates the old paisano and understands why he has come back to his place of birth; in contrast, Mr. Tiflin has no use for anything aged, including Gitano.
He demands that the old man leave the ranch after spending one night. When Jody learns that Gitano has taken the old horse, Easter, and ridden away towards the mysterious mountains, he understands the pull of the mountains; he also knows that the paisano has gone to die peacefully in Nature, away from human intervention. It is one more step in Jody's maturing process.
Jody is given a second colt to raise, but his father determines he must work hard to earn this one. His plan is to breed Nellie, their mare, with the neighbor's stallion. Jody will be given the resulting colt, provided he carefully does his chores and takes good care of Nellie during her pregnancy. Jody willingly agrees to any and all terms; he simply cannot believe he is lucky enough to be getting a new colt of his own. He dreams of it being a stallion, which he will name Black Demon.
For months on end, Jody tries to be patient as he waits for Nellie to throw her colt. As requested, he does all of his chores and carefully cares for Nellie. He also bothers Billy with hundreds of questions about the birthing process and makes the ranch-hand promise that he will call him so he can watch his colt being born. He also tries to make Billy promise that the colt will be fine. Billy refuses to promise, not wanting to disappoint Jody again; instead, he tries to reassure the boy and tells him that Nellie has already given birth to several wonderful colts.
When Billy calls Jody one night, he rushes to the barn with the ranch-hand. There he sees Nellie writing in pain as she tries to deliver the colt; no matter what she does or how Billy helps, the colt will not come. Billy then explains to Jody that the colt is in the wrong position, and either mother or colt or both will die. Billy is determined that it will not be Jody's colt, for he cannot endure the boy's disappointment a second time. As a result, Billy slits open Nellie's abdomen and pulls out the colt. Jody watches intensely as the old is sacrificed to save the new.
Although he is excited about the baby stallion and appreciative of what Billy has done, Jody feels guilty; he realizes he has caused Nellie's death because of his selfishness, and the knowledge pains him. It is another step in his maturing process.
Just as Jody could relate to Gitano, he can also relate to old grandfather. Unlike his father, Jody can patiently listen to all the old stories about traveling West. He appreciates the fact that his grandfather was a strong, brave man to cross the country in covered wagons, only to arrive in a harsh, frightening, and unknown land; he also appreciates that his grandfather was a leader of the wagon train, a hard and difficult job. Jody senses that his grandfather is close to death, like Gitano and Nellie, and has compassion for him; he also wants to learn from him all that he can. Through his relationship with his grandfather, Jody proves that he has fully matured. He is no longer a self-centered child who only thinks of himself; he now kindly reaches out to the needs of others. As proof of his maturity and thoughtfulness, Jody is seen making his grandfather a glass of lemonade. His mother is amazed that her son is squeezing lemons for her father rather than for himself; she recognizes the change in Jody from a selfish boy into a man.