The father is a quiet, practical man who works for the railroad. The fact that his sons look up to him is clear from the way that the narrator refers to funny stories his father sometimes told as an example of something interesting that would happen in his otherwise boring day. At times, the father seems to be in collusion with his sons against the moral strictness of their mother. He tells stories that might be inappropriate for children, a point that his wife has to interrupt to remind him of. He notices the mud on Gilly’s pants but does not point it out to their mother, in order to keep them from getting into trouble: what is more, he has covered for them before. At the end of the story, the narrator assumes that his father feels the same way that he does that the best way to cope with the day’s traumatic event is by putting it aside and not talking about it ever again.
Gilly is the narrator’s younger brother. Early in the story, he displays his penchant for using foul language, frequently with no particular context: he likes to say crude words but does not seem to understand their meaning. When he hears Tony refer to Old Horse as a “dumb dog,” he repeats the idea, calling him a “stupid dog” and then adds the word “hell.” “He used to like cuss words when he was a kid,” the narrator explains. In doing this, Gilly is copying the speech of Tony, who is a neighbor and distant relative. After finding out that Old Horse is dead, Gilly tries to repress his sorrow and hold his tears in, crying only silently. After awhile, when the narrator is trying to get him to run, he sobs and hiccups openly, overwhelmed by grief. By the time they are at the dinner table, Gilly is still upset, but not as upset as he had been earlier. Rather than spewing a list of obscenities, he just lets one, “hellfire,” slip out while explaining the dog’s death. Since he spends most of the story trying to wash mud off of his pants, it is clear that he knows his parents can be strict, and so it can be assumed that Gilly would not have uttered this one blasphemy if he could have held it in.
The boys’ mother represents logic over emotion. The narrator explains how, faced with a situation, she will try to explain it in a way that they will understand. In the story, she becomes angry with the boys, but her anger is never severe. When they come home late for dinner, she is described as being “more or less mad at us.” Later, when Gilly uses “hellfire” at the dinner table, the extent of her anger is that she tells him to never do it again. She is not certain whether to respect his emotions, looking to her husband and other son for some sign of the right way to respond to what Gilly has done.
The story does not say how old the narrator is. He is a boy who is old enough to be cursing as a means of expression but too old to be fascinated with it, as his brother is. He has a philosophical bent, wondering, even before finding out about the death of Old Horse, about the nature of the world and in particular the fact that events happen that are out of human control. He thinks that the way to deal with important events is to not think about them, dismissing his mother’s way of coping, which is to analyze and understand. The news of Old Horse’s death creates conflicting emotions in the narrator. He tries to remain dispassionate, but his emotions well up within him. He wants to run, and when his brother Gilly is not willing to let him channel his desire to run into a race he curses him and then runs as fast as he can anyway, to the point of exhaustion. Rather than accept the dog’s death as a tragedy, he focuses on the ways his owner could have prevented it by letting Old Horse free from his rope. Though he did not offer to take the dog with them to the creek, he blames Tony for not asking him to take him. In the end, the narrator copes with the sad news by adapting the indifference that he has seen in his father and in Tony, the “stoic Indian” stance that he has heard his father mock before.
Tony is related to the boys in the story in some undefined way: the story specifically does not say that they are unrelated, only that Tony “wasn’t close family kinfolk.” He is, however, familiar with the boys. Early in the story, when discussing Gilly’s habit of swearing, the narrator points out that he did it in an attempt to copy Tony. Later, at the dinner table, their father asks what Tony has been doing lately, which indicates that the father knows Tony is an important part of their daily lives.
As a role model, Tony exudes a cool demeanor. When the boys tell him that his dog, tied to a clothesline pole, is acting crazy, he just laughs it off. His general calm is why his appearance by the creek where the boys are chasing fish is so frightening to the narrator, who is not used to seeing Tony behave seriously.
Tony seems to understand his responsibility as a role model. He loses his temper when the narrator blames him for Old Horse’s death, shoving the boy into a bush, but he immediately reaches out to him and apologizes. The very fact that he sought the boys out after finding the dog dead suggests his need to talk to someone: when he finds that he cannot talk to them, that it just is not in his nature, he crosses over to the other side of the stream and walks away.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Simon J. Ortiz, Published by Gale Group, 2010