The story begins with a description of Billy Buck, the ranch-hand on the Tiflin ranch in northern California, and a typical routine. Soon after Billy Buck is introduced into the story, Mr. Carl Tiflin And Mrs. Ruth Tiflin and the main character Jody are introduced into the story at breakfast. Carl and Billy Buck set off to Salinas to take six cows to the butcher and return later with a little red pony for Jody, which he calls Gabilan after the Gabilan Mountains which enchant Jody so much. Gabilan is a green horse though, so Jody trains him. One day, Gabilan is left out in the rain while Jody is at school and gets sick with Strangles. Billy Buck tries to take care of Gabilan and at one point is forced to cut a hole in the horses neck for breathing. One night while Jody has fallen asleep while watching the horse, Gabilan runs away and when Jody wakes up he runs out to find buzzards eating at it.
Jody gets angry and kills a buzzard in his sorrow.
In the next chapter, it is midsummer and Jody becomes fascinated by the mountains. An old paisano man named Gitano comes to the ranch and says that he has come home to die in the place where he was born. Jody asks Gitano about the mountains and shows Gitano the old mare Easter. Gitano has dinner with the Tiflin family but Carl tells Gitano that he can only stay overnight. The next day Gitano is gone and the neighbor, Jeff Taylor, reports having seen Gitano riding Easter.
In the third chapter, it is March. Jody catches various creatures while walking home from school, in spite of his mother's disdain. Carl agrees to let Jody have another horse if Jody...