Billy approaches the tree, a squat oak in the middle of a field. Billy walks once around the tree looking for the raccoon, but Rubin and Rainie insist it’s no use—the “ghost coon,” they declare, has already disappeared. Rainie urges Billy to pay up. Billy, however, insists on climbing the tree. From up in its branches Billy can see Little Ann sniffing around an old fence post a few yards off. Because his dogs are scenting elsewhere, Billy realizes that the raccoon is not in the tree after all. The boys urge Billy to pay up already. Billy insists on letting the dogs sniff a while longer. After several minutes, however, even Little Ann and Old Dan give up and return to Billy. Billy takes out the $2 and hands it over, congratulating the Pritchard boys on winning the bet.
Billy is determined not to give up the hunt before his dogs have exhausted all possibilities. He knows how devoted they are and he has seen them accomplish extraordinary feats even when it seemed like all was lost. Rubin and Rainie, though, aren’t actually interested in a fair bet—they want Dan and Ann to fail. Billy succumbs to the social pressure and gives up—much to the Pritchards’ delight.
A breeze rustles through the trees. Little Ann raises her head to sniff and she begins walking with purpose toward the tree. Watching her, Billy declares that he might not have lost his $2 after all. Little Ann tracks the scent to a fence post nearby. Billy approaches the post and he knocks on it—it is hollow. Billy picks up a switch, asks Rubin to give him a boost, and uses the switch the poke around inside the post from the top town. Soon, his switch catches on something soft, and the “ghost coon” scrambles out of the post right into Billy’s face.
The hunt is not over after all—Little Ann’s wily nature and gift for picking up on delicate scents comes in handy as the “ghost coon” makes itself known once again. Billy is reminded to never second-guess his dogs’ resilience and the power of hard work and devotion.
As soon as the raccoon hits the ground, Little Ann and Old Dan are on him. The raccoon puts up a good fight, eventually scrabbling up into the oak tree. Billy climbs the tree to shake the raccoon out—but as he climbs out onto the limb where the raccoon is hiding and hears its nervous cries, he becomes emotional and he decides that he doesn’t want to kill the “ghost coon”—having caught up with it is enough. Billy climbs down and he tells Rubin and Rainie that he isn’t going to kill the raccoon. They call him “chicken-livered” and they warn him that if he doesn’t call his dogs on the raccoon right away, they’ll “beat [him] half to death. Billy refuses once again. The boys warn Billy that if his dogs don’t kill the raccoon, theirs will. The blue tick hound growls menacingly.
Billy is used to the hard facts of hunting: in order to have success, he must make his dogs kill their prey. Billy has been familiarized with the circle of life and the violence and death that accompanies it—but in this instance, his respect and reverence for nature wins out over his desire to see his dogs’ devotion to the hunt all the way through. Billy knows how old and skilled the “ghost coon” is and wants the animal to live a long life. It has earned its freedom, he believes—but Rubin and Rainie clearly don’t have the same respect for nature and animal life that Billy does.
Billy asks for his money back and he declares that he wants to go home—he doesn’t want to stay and watch the raccoon die. Rubin becomes angry and he accuses Billy of going back on his bet. Billy reminds him that the bet only concerned treeing the raccoon—not killing it. Rainie begins calling for Rubin to beat Billy. Rubin grabs Billy and throws him to the ground. Just as Rubin is about to unleash a blow, Billy hears growling nearby. He turns to see Old Dan and the blue tick hound fighting. Rubin starts beating Billy anyway. Rainie, however, calls out in distress that Old Dan and Little Ann are “killing Old Blue.”
Billy’s gentleness and generosity of spirit gets him in trouble with the Pritchard brothers who have no qualms about killing any animal for sport. As Billy finds himself in dire straits—Little Ann and Old Dan come to his rescue by distracting Rubin and Rainie and retaliating against the boys’ dog.
Rubin leaps off of Billy and seizes Billy’s ax. He roars that he will kill Old Dan and Little Ann before letting them kill his dog. As Rubin runs toward the dogfight, however, he trips on a stick and falls. Billy runs past him to break up the fight. Old Blue is alive but in bad shape, and Little Ann will not relinquish her jaws’ hold on his neck. Billy carefully pries her jaws apart and pulls her and Old Dan off to the side, calming them down.
Billy doesn’t want his dogs to kill Old Blue—but at the same time, he knows that they’d defend him just as viciously and devotedly as he’d defend them against anyone who tried to hurt them. Billy must work to calm his dogs down and call them off from the fight.
Billy turns around to see Rainie staring down at Rubin in horror. As Billy moves closer to the Pritchard boys, Rainie starts screaming and he runs for the hills. Billy looks down and Rubin and he sees that Rubin fell on the ax—the sharp blade has lodged itself in Rubin’s stomach. Rubin quietly pleads with Billy to take the ax out of him. Through fear, shock, and nausea, Billy reaches down to remove the blade from Rubin’s stomach. Blood gushes from the wound. Rubin tries to push himself up but he fails—he dies within seconds. Billy grabs his dogs and he starts heading for home. He looks back one last time and he sees the eyes of the “ghost coon” shining in the tree above Rubin’s dead body.
This instance of extreme violence and untimely death teaches Billy that the circle of life spares no one. Billy is traumatized by what he’s seen, but because he has an understanding of the natural world (and a deep sense of faith in a higher power) he accepts the events of the evening with a sad kind of grace. Billy understands, on some level, that what he’s witnessed is a part of growing up and understanding the world around him. There are consequences to one’s actions—and nature often shows no mercy.
Back at home, Billy wakes his parents and he tells them everything that’s happened. Mama begins crying and she wraps her arms around her “poor little boy.” Papa, however, stands up and gets dressed. He announces that he is going to tell Grandpa what’s happened, as Grandpa has the “authority to move the body.” He urges Billy to go alert the rest of their neighbors.
Papa and Mama aren’t angry with Billy for his part in the night’s grisly events—but Papa does encourage Billy to step up into a man’s role and take responsibility for his actions by spreading the news around the community.
The next day is long, slow, and rainy. Papa doesn’t come home from the Pritchards’ until late in the afternoon. He reports that while the boys’ father took the news “pretty hard,” none of the women living at the Pritchards’ shed a single tear. Rainie, he says, is still in shock—he hasn’t said a word all day, and his parents are planning to take him into town to see a doctor. In a stern, tired voice, Papa warns Billy not to mess around with the Pritchards anymore.
This passage complicates the novel’s conception of masculinity and emotion. The day after Rubin’s death is a hard day for both Billy and Papa, but they manage to keep it together—even as they make their sorrow and exhaustion known. Papa reports that the Pritchard men were emotional and upset—but that the “womenfolk” of their family were cold and unresponsive to the news. This shows that gender roles aren’t absolute—while women are stereotypically portrayed as more emotional and men as more stoic, sometimes individuals deviate from these norms.
Over the next several days, Billy is plagued by terrible guilt and nightmares. Billy asks Mama if there’s anything he can do to help, but she insists the Pritchards “don’t like to have outsiders interfere.” Nonetheless, Billy takes an old bouquet given to him by his sisters off the wall in his room and heads to the Pritchards’ place. Old Dan and Little Ann follow him dutifully through the hills. As Billy approaches the property, he can see that a fresh grave has been dug in the graveyard on the Pritchards’ land. As Billy quietly places the flowers on Rubin’s grave, he can hear the sounds of Old Blue howling inside the house.
Though Billy didn’t particularly like Rubin, he still feels guilty about his role, however small, in Rubin’s death. When he goes to pay his respects to the insular family, he realizes that perhaps their families are not as different as he imagined them to be—after all, Rubin has a hound dog, too, and the dog is just as devastated by Rubin’s death as Billy knows Ann and Dan would be by his own.