Chapter I Summary:
The narrator, Billy Colman, comes home from work feeling very good. He sees several dogs fighting one dog, an old redbone hound. But the hound is defiant and fends off several attackers. Billy is shaken; he remembers a time when an old hound such as this one had sacrificed its life for him. Billy scares off the other dogs and calms down the dog. It is starving, has apparently traveled a great distance, and wears a leather collar with the name "Buddie" childishly scratched in it. Billy takes him home, feeds him and bathes him. The next night, Billy tearfully lets him go on his way. Billy wonders what displaced the hound from the country, but knows the hound will not give up on its way to its destination. It stirs up memories of Billy's childhood, his two red hounds, love, devotion, and death. He leaves his gate open in case the hound returns, then builds a fire inside. He examines two beautiful cups, one large and one small, and thinks about his childhood.
Billy outlines the major themes of the novel when he speaks of "Memories of a wonderful love, unselfish devotion, and death in its saddest form." Each of the themes feeds into the next.
Taking them in order, we immediately see evidence of the effect love has had on Billy. He has a soft spot in his heart for the redbone hound here, crying when it leaves him. The dog's owner, most likely a small boy, evidently loves the hound, too. This love turns into unselfish devotion. Billy gladly endangers himself while scaring off the attacking dogs, and warmly welcomes the hound into his house. The hound, too, is devoted and determined. It has been traveling for ages and will keep traveling until it reaches its destination, presumably to return to its owner. Finally, Billy speaks of death. Although we do not see an actual death here, the initial scene of violence foreshadows it. Great love and devotion, Billy implies, make violence and death that much sadder.
Billy also foreshadows his childhood memories. The two cups have something to do with his two dogs, and the K. C. Baking Powder can stirs up intrigue as to what its function was.
Chapter II Summary:
Ten-year-old Billy badly wants two coon hounds. His Papa does not have enough money for them, and his Mama says Billy is too young to be hunting with dogs and a rifle. They live in a fertile valley in the Ozark Mountains on Cherokee Land (because Billy's mother has Cherokee blood) in northeastern Oklahoma. Billy loves roaming the country, especially to track river raccoons (known as "coons"). Billy wants dogs so badly he loses his appetite, but Papa cannot afford $75 for two hounds. He does give Billy three small steel traps. Billy soon drives off the accident-prone house cat, but he later catches rats and small game. He wants to bag a wily coon, however, which is too smart to get caught. The experience with hunting only makes Billy thirst for hounds even more, which breaks his parents' hearts. His Papa decides to have Billy help him work in the fields this summer, an exciting prospect for Billy.
Billy's determination to get a dog is strong. He is willing to forsake food and sleep to get his beloved hounds. While these are typical reactions to not getting something one badly wants, food and sleep are necessary to sustain life. It is almost as though, even before he gets his dogs, Billy is willing to give up his life for them.
While it is not explicitly referred to, it appears that the novel is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Papa explains how financially hard it is for farmers, and it makes Billy's goal to get his dogs - despite the costs - that much more difficult.
Chapter III Summary:
Working does not kill Billy's desire for hounds. One day, he finds an ad in a magzine for two coon hound pups at $25 each from a Kentucky kennel. He decides to save money by selling stuff to fishermen, and picking berries and skinning hides for his Grandpa's store. He puts the twenty-three cents he has into an old K. C. Baking Powder can. He works hard through the summer and the next one. After two years, he has fifty dollars. His Grandpa is shocked, and cries over Billy's hard work. He promises to write to the kennel for him, then gives Billy a huge helping of candy. Billy shares the candy with his three little sisters.
Billy's determination to get his dogs grows. He devotes two potentially carefree years working hard to save money. Aside from determination, selflessness shows up repeatedly in this chapter. The fishermen who buy Billy's wares do so out of kindness, not because they especially need or want his things. His Grandpa, too, selflessly gives Billy the candy when he sees how hard Billy has worked. The charity is infectious: Billy shares the candy with his sisters.
Chapter IV Summary:
After a little while, Grandpa tells Billy the kennel still has dogs for sale, now for $45. However, the mail buggy cannot carry dogs, so they will only get as far as the depot at Tahlequah, 32 miles away; Billy will have to ride with someone going there to pick them up. After two weeks, Billy gets a notice that the dogs are ready. He can get a ride in a week's time, but he cannot wait. He takes some food and sneaks out the house at night without telling his family his plan.
Billy walks through the night to Tahlequah. An unkempt, barefoot country boy, he feels out of place in the sophisticated town. He buys some clothing and cloth for his family, and some candy. Some kids at a school playground taunt him with the words "'Hillbilly, hillbilly.'" After they leave, he plays on a slide and believes he has set a record for the longest slide.
Billy is steadfast in his desire to get his dogs; he is willing to walk through the night rather than wait a week for a ride. His dream is so important to him that he does not want to tell his family about it. It is as though telling them would lessen the significance, as would his getting a ride into town. This is something Billy has done all on his own, and he wants to keep it that way.
Still, Billy wants to thank his family for their love, so he gets them gifts. His family is tightly knit and bound by love, which is fortunate since Billy is shunned by the townspeople in Tahlequah. Billy has his private revenge, however, when he proves far better than the schoolchildren on the slide. Billy's physical prowess - he is muscular, too, and fit enough to walk to Tahlequah - will be an asset when he hunts.
Chapter V Summary:
Billy arrives at the depot, unsure why he is scared. The kindly stationmaster gives him the puppies. Billy holds them and cries. He walks through town with them in his gunny sack as people stare and laugh at him. A bunch of children gang up on Billy. The leader pulls the ear of Billy's girl pup, and Billy knocks him down with a punch. He fends off a few others, but soon the gang beats up Billy. The town marshal fights everyone off and helps Billy up. He gains respect for Billy when he learns how long he worked for the pups. He buys Billy his first bottle of soda pop.
Billy heads home, but the sack is a heavy load. He camps out at night in a cave and examines his dogs up close. The male dog is larger and bolder, while the female dog is timid but smart. Billy is woken up at night by the scream of a nearby mountain lion. The dogs run out of the cave and bawl a challenge to the lion. Billy joins them and throws rocks down the mountainside. After a few hours, the lion retreats.
Billy's fight with the children in town is similar to the dogfight he breaks up in Chapter I. In both cases, one individual fights bravely against a gang but must be rescued by someone else (Billy saved the dog; the marshal saves Billy). This episode shows Billy's continuing determination - he will not back down - and, more importantly, his already deep love for his dogs - he chooses to fight back only when one of the kids hurts his female pup.
The mountain lion episode also demonstrates the courage Billy takes from his dogs. Just as we have seen how charity can be contagious - remember how Grandpa gave Billy candy, and he in turn gave it to his sisters - so can courage be.