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...
(The entire section is 2667 words.)
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In Old Yeller, Gipson skillfully works believable characters into an exciting plot in which wild bulls crash into a family's cabin, a bear nearly kills a young boy, and a wolf attacks a dog. Even though modern young readers do not tend to have such dramatic adventures, they can easily empathize with Travis Coates, the novel's fourteen-yearold protagonist, as he reacts to these experiences. Like Travis, they may find that their mother relies on them to keep the family together. They too may have a younger sibling who is both endearing and exasperating. They, too, may have to fight fear and sorrow to act courageously.
Old Yeller is also a wonderful book for those who love to read about animals. Old Yeller, the stray dog Travis and Arliss take in, is an ugly, food-stealing mongrel. He is also intelligent, loyal, and brave. Anyone who has known the special love a pet can offer will not soon forget Old Yeller's antics and the terrible ordeal that awaits him and Travis at the conclusion.
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