Chapter XVI Summary:
At sundown, Billy, Papa, Grandpa, and a judge travel downriver in their buggy to get away from the previously hunted territory, as do the other hunters. The dogs soon track a coon but chase it back through the camp. Still, they soon tree it and, with the help of the bird shot rifle, kill it. They soon tree and kill another coon, though Grandpa gets wet in a river.
The dogs quickly track another coon and seemingly tree it, but the coon pulls a trick and is nowhere to be found. Still, the dogs, and Billy, do not give up. As morning comes, the dogs tree and kill the coon. Little Ann's intelligence in locating the coon greatly impresses the judge.
Back at the camp, another hunter describes seeing the dogs chase the coon through the camp last night. No one skins three coons the last night of the first round, leaving just three teams for the championship runoff. The camp puts together a jackpot for the winner. One of the teams Billy is up against has won four gold cups.
In the final round, Billy's team revisits the spot where they treed the last coon. The dogs quickly get in a vicious fight in the water with a coon, but Old Dan defeats him. The dogs tend to each other's wounds before they move on.
Billy's and his dogs' determination magnifies when we see how both Papa and the judge doubt the dogs' ability to get three coons. Billy's confidence in his dogs, too, is deep; whenever he speaks solemnly to his dogs before a major event, we can tell that they send back an unspoken message of understanding and responsibility. The dogs also have a strong commitment to each other, as evidenced by their tending to each
The chapter also provides some welcome comic relief from the tension of the hunt. Grandpa's falling into the water is not only humorous, but underscores the difficulty of being a good coon hunter. While Old Dan and Little Ann are mostly responsible for the team's success, Billy often makes shrewd decisions that save the team time and effort.
Rawls keeps the tension up throughout the hunting scenes by putting in cliffhangers at the end of the chapter. Unlike before, when we knew Billy needed to get three coons to qualify for the championship, we now do not know how many he needs to get to win the championship.
Chapter XVII Summary:
A windy sleet storm brews as the dogs trail their second coon. In the harsh conditions, the men lose track of the dogs. The men want to return to camp, but Billy wants to find his dogs; he knows that Old Dan would sooner freeze to death than give up a chase and return to camp. The others decide to follow Billy.
The blizzard makes it more difficult to locate the dogs. Billy gets the idea to shoot the gun to draw Little Ann's attention. Papa shoots, and Little Ann returns. Billy asks her to lead them to Old Dan. They go through the thick underbrush but cannot find him. The judge thinks they should go in before they freeze, and Papa and Grandpa seem to agree.
Suddenly, Old Dan's voice rings out nearby, and they find him bawling by a tree. When they reach him, they realize that Grandpa has been left behind somewhere. They shoot the gun, but get no answer. Little Ann finds Grandpa and leads them to him. He has fallen and twisted his ankle, and the pain has knocked him unconscious. Papa revives Grandpa's partly frozen body, and they build a fire nearby. Papa wants to go for help, but Grandpa urges them to continue the hunt.
The coon is most likely inside the hollow tree the dogs have surrounded. They chop it down and the dogs chase the three coons that emerge. They kill two, but the third gets away, and the dogs chase it. The men let them go and skin the other coons.
Billy proves that he is not in coon hunting for the glory. Rather, his love for his dogs and his Grandpa trumps the competition; he is far more concerned with the health of both than with how many coons they take in.
Ironically, Billy's love for his coons contributes to his success. Had he given in, as the men wanted, they would not have found the dogs by the hollow tree with three coons. It is almost as if Billy is being rewarded for his choice of love over success.
Chapter XVIII Summary:
The storm blows itself out, and it starts snowing. The men (minus Grandpa) hear men from the camp searching for them. They meet up and Papa reassures them that they are fine, but that Grandpa needs help. Billy learns that the four-time championship winners killed three coons before the storm, and that he needs the final coon to win. A man who had wandered away returns and says he saw Billy's hounds looking frozen solid in ice, but alive. While Billy recovers from the shock of thinking his dogs are dead, the men help Grandpa into a makeshift stretcher and take him away.
Billy and two of the men find his dogs. Caked in ice, they have been circling continuously around the tree to keep from freezing. The men build a fire for them, and marvel at the determination and love of the dogs throughout the blizzard. After the dogs thaw out, one of the men shoots at the tree. The dogs kill the coon, and the men return to the camp. All the men are ready to leave for fear of another blizzard.
Grandpa's foot is in bad shape, but he wants to see Billy get the gold cup before he is taken to town for treatment. Billy receives the $300 jackpot and gives it to his father. Billy cries when he gets the gold cup, which he can engrave for free with his dogs' names.
Grandpa goes away with a doctor, and Billy and Papa head home. They arrive the next day, and he gives his sisters the gold and silver cups. They learn that Grandpa is doing well and will be back in a few days. Papa gives Mama the money from the jackpot, and she says her prayers have been answered. They have a celebratory feast. At night, Billy sees Mama give food to the dogs outside. She prays by their side and says something to them. Papa joins her, and Mama cries when they come back in. Billy is confused, but he overhears them mentioning Grandpa will now need help with the store with his bad foot. Billy thinks they want him to help out with the store, which is fine with him, since he can still hunt at night.
One of the men helping Billy expresses the view that if humans had the kind of love for each other that dogs have, "'There would be no wars, slaughter, or murder; no greed or selfishness. It would be the kind of world that God wants us to have - a wonderful world.'" He attaches the religious component that Billy has been alluding to each time God has answered his prayers. There is something spiritual about the dogs' love for each other and Billy, and God seems to be aiding them throughout their adventures.
All the danger and tension from the hunt is released in Billy's triumphant homecoming. We cannot help but feel as exuberant as his sisters do, and as grateful as Mama does, after having battled with the dogs throughout the hunt. Mama seems to have additional reasons for her behavior, too; she previously declared her desire to move the family to town, and the jackpot money should make that possible.
Chapter XIX Summary:
One night three weeks after the championship, Billy's dogs chase what he thinks is a bobcat. They have killed them before, but Billy thinks it is an unnecessary risk. They tree the cat, and Old Dan is especially vicious. Billy realizes they have not treed a bobcat, but a dangerous mountain lion.
The lion jumps out of the tree and fights the dogs. Little Ann is wounded, and Billy joins in the fight with his ax. The lion turns on Billy, but his dogs protect him. The fight continues down the mountain. The lion has Old Dan's throat, but Billy lodges the ax in its back. The dogs finish it off as it tries to get to Billy. Billy faints and wakes up. The lion is dead and the dogs are still holding on to it with their jaws.
Billy pries them off and inspects them. They are both injured, but Old Dan is far worse off. He leads them home, but soon discovers that the lion had slashed Old Dan's belly, and his entrails have come out. Billy puts them back in Old Dan's belly and carries him home. Mama helps Billy bathe Old Dan and sew up his belly before they tend to Little Ann. But Old Dan dies. Billy stays up at night next to his body. Little Ann joins them and snuggles up next to Old Dan. Billy runs outside and cries in the early morning.
In the morning, Billy buries Old Dan in a crude box by a red oak tree. Two days later, he finds that Little Ann will not eat and has lost the will to live. Billy force-feeds her for a few days, but it does no good. She is missing one day, and he finds her dead on top of Old Dan's grave. Mama joins Billy at the grave and tells him he did nothing wrong and that everyone must suffer sometimes. He rejects the idea of getting new dogs and says that he no longer believes in prayer, since he prayed for his dogs and they have died. They cover Little Ann's body in leaves and go back to the house.
Papa shows Billy the money his dogs have earned; they now have enough money to move to town. Mama and Papa had decided to let Billy help out Grandpa in the store so he could remain with his dogs for a while, but they knew that was not a good solution. Papa believes God did not want to break up the family like this, so he took the lives of Billy's dogs.
Billy cries during the night and Mama tries to comfort him, though she cannot think of any way to do it. The next morning, Billy buries Little Ann by Old Dan, carves their names into a red sandstone, and places it by their graves. Mama reassures him that his dogs are in heaven, and Billy feels a little better.
The mountain lion episode demonstrates not just loyalty but love, as one of the men in Chapter XVIII said. Loyalty is too weak a word for what the dogs and Billy do for each other. Rawls makes the dogs' final actions sacrificial. Old Dan sacrifices his life for Billy, while Little Ann sacrifices her life for Old Dan. Unwilling to eat, she appears to lose her characteristic determined will for the first time, but really she wants to join Old Dan as soon as possible.
This quality of love is perhaps why Rawls has used red throughout Where the Red Fern Grows. The dogs are red, Billy buries them by a red oak, and he uses a red sandstone for their tombstone. Red, of course, is the color of blood and the heart, and serves as a symbol of the dogs' deep love, their strong will power, and their sacrificial intimacy with each other and Billy. Rawls withholds, however, the meaning of the novel's red title.
Billy's faith is shaken after his dogs' death. After so many of his prayers have been answered, he cannot understand why a benevolent God would take away his beloved dogs. Papa has a good answer: the dogs have sacrificed themselves not only for Billy, but also for the family. After his period of doubt, Billy regains his belief in God and heaven.
The appearance of the mountain lion provides structural symmetry. As Billy points out, his first major test with the dogs was in challenging a mountain lion from a cave their first night together. The mountain lion adds another religious meaning. Billy feels he has rid the mountains of a great evil - the "devil cat" - and made it safe for the defenseless animals there. He and his dogs have swept out evil with their love and goodness.
Chapter XX Summary:
The family leaves the Ozarks in good spirits the next spring. Billy goes to his dogs' grave to say goodbye. He finds a tall, beautiful red fern between the graves. He remembers the Indian legend about a little boy and girl who had been lost in a blizzard and froze to death. When their bodies were found in the spring, a red fern had sprouted between them. As the legend goes, only an angel can plant the seeds of a red fern, which never dies and makes the spot sacred.
Billy calls his family, and they feel it is God's way of explaining to Billy why his dogs have died. Billy does feel better, and he says a final goodbye to his dogs. The family rides away and looks back at the red fern, visible in the distance.
The adult Billy reflects that he would like to revisit the Ozarks of his childhood. He would like to see his old haunts and landmarks. He is sure the red fern has grown and now covers his dogs' graves, for in his heart he believes "the legend of the sacred red fern."
The poignant ending of Where the Red Fern Grows does not manipulatively pull heartstrings, but earns its emotional payoff. We have grown with the dogs and Billy, and their adventures and love for each other have culminated in the mystical growth of the red fern.
Rawls has made the red fern seem plausible in two ways. First, Billy mentioned early on that his mother was part Cherokee; her Native American background, then, has made Billy aware of the story of the red fern. Moreover, the story involves a boy and a girl who freeze to death in a blizzard, whereas Old Dan and Little Ann nearly froze to death in the blizzard during the championship coon hunt.
The meaning of the novel's title is finally revealed, as is the novel's final usage of the color red. Beyond love, determination, and intimacy, red now takes on a mystical quality that has been building through all of God's seeming interventions in the lives of Billy and the dogs. The novel ends on an upbeat spiritual note. As an adult, Billy is now a full believer in the legend of the red fern and in heaven.