One aspect that is particularly notable about “The End of Old Horse” is the story’s lack of a general conflict. There are times when tension is raised, as when the narrator accuses Tony of being negligent and Tony shoves him or when Gilly curses at the family supper table and readers expect trouble to ensue. None of these problems develop into conflict, however: the story cannot be said to be “about” the conflict between Tony and the narrator or Gilly and his parents. Instead, Ortiz uses these tense moments to hold the reader’s interest while pursuing a larger, less explicitly defined idea. The story is more about the characters’ attitudes than it is about their interactions with each other: if one were intent on defining it in terms of conflict, it would be more accurate to say that it is about a series of internal conflicts.
Describing what the boys do at the creek, the narrator gives more attention to Gilly scrubbing his jeans than he does to their fishing project, which is supposedly their reason for being there. He mentions the mud on Gilly’s jeans several times over the course of three paragraphs then returns to the matter again when they arrive home. The mud is given almost as much focus as the obscene language that Gilly uses, and, in fact, can be seen as a symbol of Gilly’s language: he fears his parents’ reaction to seeing his Levis muddied just as much as he fears their reaction to hearing words like “hell.” By focusing attention on the jeans and the fear of what the parents will think of them, Ortiz raises the expectation that the parents will be severe about language without having to call too much attention to what they will think of hearing Gilly say “hellfire”: the story commands attention for its climactic moment without being too heavy handed about where it is going.
The character in this story who draws the most attention is Gilly, the younger brother. Gilly is the one who is going through a phase of using colorful language. He is the one who has the greatest struggle with his emotions concerning Old Horse’s death. And he is the one who is openly in trouble at the climactic moment at the supper table. Still, it is the narrator who is the main character, as first person narrators of stories often are. Though readers know less about the narrator (for instance, his name), his complex emotions are important. While Gilly tries to be as dispassionate and stoic as his hero Tony is, he is unsuccessful and cries several times; the narrator, on the other hand, is much better at suppressing his sorrow. This is a story about a culture where people are expected to shrug off grief, the narrator is a much more sublime study of that state of mind than his younger brother is.
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