Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2667
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 hydrophobia making the rounds.” He emphasizes the grave danger posed by the disease and says that by the time a creature exhibits the foaming at the mouth and “blind staggers” characteristic of rabies, the damage to others around it most likely will have been done. Sanderson tells Travis not to take any chances; he must “shoot anything that acts unnatural, and [not] fool around about it.”
The settlers in the area raise hogs, which are allowed to run wild over the range and are identified by markings cut into their ears. Armed with vicious, four-inch tusks, range hogs are extremely aggressive and dangerous, but Travis has worked them with Papa and feels that he is up to the task of marking and castrating them. Travis’s method of operation is to climb up on a sturdy branch of a tall tree while Old Yeller herds the hogs beneath him. Travis snares the young pigs one by one, draws them up in the tree, does his work, then lowers them down again. Over the course of several days, Travis marks and castrates forty-six pigs. Then he goes to work on the last bunch, who are roaming in bat cave country far from their normal habitat. Old Yeller brings the hogs in, but the ferocious creatures make their stand in an opening under a dirt bank instead of beneath a tree. The bank is high above the swarming animals, so Travis figures it will serve just as well as a tree. Suddenly the dirt crumbles beneath his weight, and he is thrown down right in the midst of the angry hogs. Travis is gored in his right calf and is in grave danger of being killed, but Old Yeller leaps in and faces the hogs, giving him a chance to get away.
When Travis finally reaches safety, he stops to examine his leg, which is cut “clear to the bone.” He binds it with a piece of his shirt. Instead of going home, he returns to find Old Yeller, even though he knows the dog is probably dead. Travis finds his faithful friend hiding in a small alcove under a slab of rock—torn to pieces but still alive. His belly has been cut open and his entrails are hanging out. At first, Travis believes there is nothing he can do but wait with him until he dies, then he remembers that Mama “always [knows] what to do when somebody [gets] hurt” and resolves to try to save Old Yeller. Travis pushes his dog’s insides back into his belly and wraps the dog’s body tightly with what remains of his shirt. He then secures the opening to the alcove and, promising to return, hurries home.
Mama doctors Travis’s leg and tries to make him lie down and rest, but she and Arliss accompany him when he insists on returning for Old Yeller. Buzzards circle overhead, but Old Yeller is still alive. Mama sends Arliss to catch her a green-striped lizard so he will not be present to witness the gory scene, then Mama sews up the dog’s belly and helps Travis make a litter on which to transport him home.
Both Travis and Old Yeller have “a rough time of it” for the next couple of weeks, and Mama, who has to nurse the invalids as well as take care of the farm, is almost overwhelmed. When Bud Searcy comes by with Lisbeth again, Travis is annoyed because he thinks the disagreeable man will only add to Mama’s workload. Lisbeth has brought one of Miss Prissy’s pups. Travis, who is still hurting terribly, tells her to give it to Arliss; in his mind, he has all the dog he needs in Old Yeller.
As expected, Searcy spends the afternoon talking nonstop and spitting tobacco. When he is finally ready to go, he leaves Lisbeth behind to help Mama and the family. Mama and Travis both think at first that Lisbeth is “too little and skinny” to make much of a difference, but as it turns out, she is a huge asset. She is an extremely hard worker, and her willingness to help more than makes up for her size.
Before long, however, a challenge presents itself that is bigger than anything the family could have ever imagined. Spot, their heifer, fails to show up at milking time, and when she finally reappears, she acts very strangely. Spot goes after Mama, ignores her calf, and commences to walk around and around in a wide circle, bawling and staggering, day and night. A few days later, a range bull arrives, wobbling and reeling as if he cannot see. Old Yeller, sensing deadly danger, rises from his sickbed with a “savage growl,” and Travis realizes they can no longer ignore the truth; the animals are “mad with hydrophobia.” Before the bull can reach Lisbeth and Arliss, who are down by the creek, Travis shoots it dead between the eyes.
Mama says that the bull’s body must be burned to prevent the spread of disease. It takes forty-eight hours to burn up the carcass; at night, the wolves gather, drawn by the smell of roasting meat. After the bull’s body has been dispatched, Mama tells Travis that Spot must be shot as well. The heifer has been bawling and pacing in a circle for days now, and she is so weak, Travis cannot understand how she is still alive. Despite his injured leg, he follows the heifer and cuts her down about a mile from the cabin. When he returns home, he is spent, so Mama leaves Arliss with him and takes Lisbeth and the mule, Jumper, out to burn the body. At the last minute, Old Yeller decides to go with them.
Travis is worried when Mama and Lisbeth are not back by nightfall. He is about to go and search for them when he hears the sounds of a dogfight. Mama calls for Travis to make a light and bring his gun; when he hurriedly lights a fire of bear-grass blades, Travis sees Old Yeller locked in battle with a big loafer wolf. As carefully as he can, Travis takes aim and squeezes the trigger of his gun. The shot renders both animals still and silent, but to Travis’s great relief, Old Yeller rises when he approaches and wags his stubby tail.
Mama explains that it had taken her and Lisbeth until dark to get the fire going around the dead heifer. On their way home, they had been attacked by the loafer wolf, who “had to’ve been mad...no wolf in his right senses would have acted that way.” Old Yeller had leaped in and fought the wolf, allowing Mama and Lisbeth to run away. Travis says it was a good thing Old Yeller had chosen to go along with them, but Mama replies solemnly that though it was a good thing for her and Lisbeth, it was not a good thing for Old Yeller.
With an onslaught of dread that takes his breath away, Travis understands what Mama is saying. Old Yeller has been bitten by a mad wolf, and there is virtually no chance that he will escape getting the sickness. Knowing what must be done, he reloads his gun and calls the dog; Travis puts the gun to his head and shoots Old Yeller.
In the following days, Travis is filled with an aching emptiness that will not go away. Lisbeth tries to talk to him and points out that he still has the speckled pup who is “part Old Yeller,” but it does not seem to matter. Papa comes home, bringing the saddle horse he has promised, but though Travis is thankful, he finds that he does not “feel one way or another” about anything.
After learning about what happened with Old Yeller from Mama, Papa tells Travis how proud he is of him. He says that life can often seem “mighty cruel and unfair.” He suggests that, difficult though it is, a man must find a way to get over the bad things that happen so he does not miss the good things. Travis appreciates his father’s words, but he still feels “dead and empty” inside.
About a week later, something happens that brings Travis alive again. The speckled pup boldly steals a slab of cornbread right out of Mama’s kitchen, and the bedlam that follows reminds Travis of the days when Old Yeller first arrived. Travis takes a ride on his horse and discovers that he actually enjoys it, and when he returns, he finds Little Arliss and the pup swimming in the drinking water again. Though he knows he ought to “beat them to a frazzle,” Travis laughs until he cries. Having finally come to terms with the fate of his noble dog, Travis decides that he will take the pup hunting the next day. If the pup is
big enough to act like Old Yeller, he [is] big enough to start learning to earn his keep.