Just after the Civil War, the men of the Texas hill country around Salt Licks are headed to the cattle market in Abilene, Kansas, six hundred miles to the north, to sell livestock for much-needed “cash money.” The round trip will take months; during that time, their women and children “will be left in a wild frontier settlement to make out the best they [can].” Fourteen-year-old Travis Coates will be the “man of the house” in his family, charged with the responsibility of keeping up the farm and taking care of his mother and five-year-old brother, Arliss. Travis feels certain that he can handle whatever needs to be done; his father has confidence in him and has promised to bring him “a man’s horse to ride” if he conducts himself faithfully.
The morning after Papa leaves, Old Yeller arrives at the farm. Travis goes out to get the family’s last side of middling meat, only to find that it is gone. Nearby, curled up on the ground, is an ugly yellow dog, his belly “swelled up as tight and round as a pumpkin.” Irate, Travis aims a kick at the animal. He misses but the dog rolls over and “beller[s] at the top of his voice.” Arliss comes running out of the house and furiously attacks his brother with a hail of rocks for kicking “his dog.” To Travis’s chagrin, Mama sides with Arliss, asserting that if the dog is a stray, Arliss should be allowed to keep him because he is lonely for a playmate. Travis has no choice but to obey, but he begins to plot how he will get rid of the troublemaking dog.
The next day, Mama sends Travis out to kill a deer for meat. Using skills his father taught him, Travis brings down a doe, shooting her directly through the heart. Feeling “big and strong and sure of himself,” Travis magnanimously resolves to put up with the yellow dog for Arliss’s sake, but when he gets home, he finds both the dog and his little brother frolicking in the pool that holds the family’s drinking water. When Travis reacts angrily, another rock-throwing melee ensues, and the situation ends with Mama whipping Arliss for his infraction and reprimanding Travis for being so bossy; Old Yeller “[gets] off scott free.”
A few days later, Travis has another reason to hate Old Yeller. Two range bulls are ready to have a fight, and Travis, Mama, and Arliss are sitting out on the fence to watch the show. The confrontation becomes more violent than anticipated, however, when the wildly careening bulls smash into the fence and crash into the walls of the house. To save their cabin, Travis grabs a bullwhip and approaches the crazed creatures, but Mama argues that it is dangerous and that he should send the dog after them instead. Infuriatingly, when Old Yeller sees Travis carrying the whip, he “tuck[s] his tail and [lights] out...for the woods.”
Travis’s opinion of Old Yeller changes after an incident in which Arliss is almost killed by a bear. Little Arliss, who has a propensity for collecting all sorts of wildlife, manages to catch hold of a small cub’s leg, but its cries bring its mother racing to the rescue. Watching events unfold from a distance, Travis knows he cannot get to Arliss before the angry mother bear. To everyone’s great relief, Old Yeller roars in “like a mad bull” and fights off the mother bear until Travis can grab Arliss and get him to safety.
Having almost lost Arliss, Travis realizes acutely how much his little brother means to him, and it is “only natural” for him to love the dog that saved him. He begins to take Old Yeller with him when he hunts, and he finds that the big, ugly creature is an invaluable help. One day, Mama makes a “sumptuous supper” of wild turkey, but when Travis offers the dog some meat, he is not interested. The family wonders how Old Yeller stays so fat and healthy looking when he never seems to eat much. The answer is provided when a neighbor, Bud Searcy, comes to visit.
Searcy is an ill-mannered, “red-faced man with a bulging middle” who loves to talk and is generally considered to be shiftless. He rides up with Lisbeth, his eleven-year-old granddaughter, whom Travis appreciates because she is solemn and reserved—“different from most girls.” Searcy makes himself right at home, lounging comfortably in a chair outside the house and spitting tobacco juice copiously while he talks about what is going on in the settlement.
Among other topics in his seemingly endless narrative, Searcy announces that there is fear of a hydrophobia outbreak in the area, and he hopes that the threat of rabies does not reach Salt Licks. He also says that “some strange varmint” has been stealing food from farms all over the settlement, which makes Travis feel strangely uneasy. Later, Lisbeth takes Travis aside and tells him that the mysterious thief is Old Yeller; she has seen him pilfering meat and eggs on their property. Lisbeth promises not to tell anyone what she knows, however, because her blue-ticked bitch, Miss Prissy, is going to have pups, and Old Yeller is the father. Travis knows that Old Yeller will undoubtedly be shot if he is caught. He tells Mama what Lisbeth has told him, and they solve the problem by keeping the dog shut in the bedroom at night with Travis and Arliss.
As the crops in the fields ripen, Travis must sleep outside to keep the coons and “other varmints” away. He develops a real appreciation for Old Yeller, who is eminently helpful and a loyal companion. When Spot, a rogue heifer, must be caught and broken for milking, the dog knows instinctively how to bring her in and make her behave. At the end of two weeks, she is “the gentlest cow [Travis has] ever milked,” thanks to Old Yeller.
To the family’s dismay, a newcomer to Salt Licks, Burn Sanderson, comes by one day and says he has lost “a big yeller dog.” Despite Travis’s protests that they “can’t do without Old Yeller,” Mama insists that if the dog belongs to the man, they will have to give him up. As Sanderson prepares to ride off with Old Yeller, Arliss figures out what is happening. He throws “a wall-eyed fit,” frightening Sanderson's horse and creating pandemonium. Sanderson, a kind and reasonable man, realizes how much Old Yeller means to the family and is taken with Arliss’s intensity and passion. He makes a trade—the Coates can keep the dog if Mama will make him a great, home-cooked meal. Before he leaves, Sanderson takes Travis aside. He recognizes Travis as the man of the house and warns him that there is indeed “a plague of...
(The entire section is 2667 words.)