The Baxter family consists of Penny Baxter, his plump wife, Ora, and their son, Jody. They live in a simple cabin in the Florida scrub country, where patient, hardworking Penny ekes out a meager living by farming and hunting. Young Jody still sees life through the eyes of a child and finds a boy’s pleasure in building a flutter mill (a water wheel) at the spring when he should have been hoeing the garden patch.
One spring morning, the family discovers that Betsy, their black brood sow, has been killed by a bear. Penny recognizes the tracks as those of Old Slewfoot, a giant black bear with one toe missing. Determined to be rid of this offender, he corners the animal in the scrub, but his old gun will not fire, and the bear escapes.
Unable to afford a new gun, Penny trades a worthless dog to his neighbors, the Forresters, for a new double-barreled shotgun of fine make. The Forrester family consists of the old parents, six gigantic, lawless boys, and Fodder-Wing, a deformed and disabled boy who is Jody’s best friend. Penny is reluctant to dupe his neighbors, but his very living depends on the destruction of Old Slewfoot. He eases his conscience by telling the Forrester boys truthfully that the dog cannot be trained for hunting. His words convince the suspicious Forresters that the dog is even more valuable than they had thought, and they insist on the trade.
After his father’s old gun is repaired, it becomes Jody’s great pride. One day, while hunting with his father, he shoots a buck, and Penny sells the venison at the store in Volusia. Afterward, Penny and Jody go to see Grandma Hutto, at whose house they spend the night. In the morning, everyone is made glad by the unexpected arrival of Oliver Hutto, Grandma’s son, just home from the sea. Later that day, Oliver goes downtown, where he meets Lem Forrester. Both of the men have been courting the same girl, Twink Weatherby. When the two start to fight, all of Lem’s brothers join in against Oliver. Wiry Penny and small Jody also enter the fight with Oliver, because the odds against him are so heavy. Jody is knocked unconscious, and Oliver leaves the fight badly battered. To keep people from talking, Twink leaves town on the riverboat the next morning.
A short time later, Penny discovers that his hogs have disappeared. He suspects the Forresters of having trapped them to get revenge for the shotgun deal, and he and Jody start to track the hogs. During the search, a rattlesnake bites Penny on the arm. He saves himself by shooting a doe and applying the animal’s liver to the bite to draw out the poison. Even in the excitement, Jody notices that the doe has a fawn. While Penny staggers homeward, Jody goes to the Forresters to ask them to ride and fetch Doc Wilson.
The Forresters, with the exception of Lem, evidently hold no grudge over the trading of the dog and the fight in town, and they do all they can for the Baxters. One of the boys brings Doc Wilson to the Baxters’ cabin, and later the Forresters round up the hogs and return them. Buck Forrester then stays on at the Baxter cabin to help with the work.
While Penny is still desperately ill, Jody returns to the place where his father had been bitten, and there he finds the helpless young fawn. He is so eager to have it for his own that his parents allow him to bring it home as...
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a pet. Rations are scarcer than ever at the Baxters’ home during Penny’s illness, but Jody is willing to share his own food and milk with the fawn. Fodder-Wing gives the fawn its name: Flag.
In September a great storm comes, destroying most of the Baxter crops. About a month later, Old Slewfoot visits the Baxter land again and kills a fat hog. Penny, who is in bed with chills and fever, is not able to follow the great black bear. Later, wolves kill one of the Baxters’ calves, and, with the Forresters, the Baxters hunt down the whole pack. During the hunt, they find ten bear cubs that have been left motherless by the plague and by hunters. Two of the Forresters take the cubs to Jacksonville and sell them, and Penny and Jody’s share of the profits allows them to buy necessities that will tide the Baxters over for the coming winter.
The Baxters plan to spend Christmas in Volusia with Grandma Hutto and to attend the town’s festivities on Christmas Eve, but a few days before Christmas, Old Slewfoot again appears and kills a calf. Penny swears that he will kill the raider, and, after several days of determined hunting, he finds and shoots the huge bear.
The Baxters join Grandma Hutto at the Christmas party, and during the evening, Oliver Hutto arrives in town with his wife, Twink. To get revenge, Lem Forrester and his brothers set Grandma Hutto’s house on fire and burn it to the ground. Without Oliver’s knowing that the house was destroyed by the Forresters, Grandma Hutto, Oliver, and Twink leave town the next morning on the riverboat, having decided to go to Boston to live.
Back in their cabin, the Baxters settle down to a quiet winter of fishing and hunting. Flag, the fawn, has grown and is now a yearling. The fawn has never been a favorite of Ma Baxter because she begrudges him the food and milk that Jody feeds him and because he is a nuisance around the cabin.
In the spring, while Jody is helping his father plant corn, Flag gets into the tobacco field and destroys about half of the young plants. One day, while trying to pull a tree stump out of the ground, Penny suffers a hemorrhage that forces him to spend many days in bed. While he is recovering, Jody has to do all of the farmwork. He watches as the corn they have planted sprouts through the ground. One morning, he finds that Flag has eaten most of the tender green shoots of the corn plants. Mrs. Baxter wants to kill the fawn at once, but Penny suggests that Jody build a fence around the corn to keep Flag out. Jody spends many days replanting the corn and building a high fence around the field, but when the new planting of corn comes up, Flag leaps the high fence with ease and again destroys the green shoots.
Her patience exhausted, Mrs. Baxter takes Penny’s gun and shoots the fawn. Her aim is poor, however, and she fails to kill the animal. The unhappy Jody has to shoot his pet again. Jody feels that his parents have betrayed him, and he hates them for it. He leaves the clearing and wanders into the scrub. With the vague idea of running away from home to join the Huttos in Boston, he heads for the river and sets out in Nellie Ginright’s dugout canoe. After several days without food, he is picked up by the river mail-boat. He returns home, ashamed and penitent, no longer interested in the flutter mill, which he now considers only a plaything for children.