After winning the cups, Billy continues taking Little Ann and Old Dan out hunting every night. About three weeks after returning home from the hunt, Billy takes the dogs out one night and soon realizes that the animal they’ve begun to track isn’t a raccoon, but a bobcat. Billy doesn’t like having his dogs hunt bobcats, but tonight he allows them to chase it down. When the dogs finally tree the animal, however, Billy can tell by their cries that “something [is] wrong.”
Billy is so confident in his dogs’ abilities that he doesn’t question it much when they choose to hunt larger game. As the chase gets underway, however, Billy begins to realize that perhaps he and his dogs have gotten in deeper than they bargained for.
As Billy approaches with his lantern to grab the dogs’ collars and pull them away from the tree, he spots two “burning, yellow eyes” and he realizes that his dogs have not treed a bobcat, but a mountain lion—“the devil cat of the Ozarks.” Old Dan lets out a loud howl. The mountain lion responds with a deep growl before launching from the tree and jumping upon Dan. Little Ann joins the brawl and she locks her jaws around the cat’s throat. A bloody, horrible fight begins—Billy, “berserk” at the sight of his dogs in trouble, charges in with his ax and he chops at the big cat. When the cat rounds on him, Dan and Ann leap to Billy’s defense.
Billy realizes he has made a horrible (and indeed possibly fatal) mistake much too late. His dogs are already determined to fight off the predator—and once they lock onto a threat against Billy, there is little chance of calling them off. Billy has no choice but to join the fray and help defend his dogs against the giant cat, mirroring their devotion by demonstrating his own.
The fight goes on and on as Billy continues chopping at the cat while the mountain lion rips and tears at Dan and Ann. Finally, Billy manages to strike a fatal blow and fell the mountain lion. The effort of the blow and the shock of the brawl get to Billy at last, and he passes out. When he reawakens, he sees that his dogs are still “glued” to the cat’s lifeless body, unwilling to release their jaws’ fatal grips on him. As Billy sees his ax sticking out of the mountain lion’s back, he thinks of Rubin Pritchard. Billy goes to the dogs and he examines them. Little Ann is cut up badly, but none of her wounds look fatal. Dan, on the other hand, is a “bloody mess.”
The second major instance of violence and death that Billy has witnessed—the attack of the mountain lion—reminds him of the first: the death of Rubin Pritchard. Billy is more traumatized by this incident than by Rubin’s death, yet he finds himself in a similar position of being forced to pry his dogs’ jaws off of the entity which threatened Billy’s safety. Billy is reminded not only of his dogs’ devotion, but of their savagery as well.
With tears in his eyes, Billy begins trying to stanch Dan’s wounds using mud. Billy pulls his ax from the mountain lion’s corpse and he starts leading the dogs back home. Halfway there, he realizes that Old Dan is not behind him—he turns around and hears a pitiful cry. When he doubles back to find Dan, he realizes that Dan’s entrails are falling out of a wound in his stomach and have wound around a berry bush. Billy helps extricate Dan from the bush and stuff his entrails back into the wound, then continues leading the dogs home.
As Billy leads the dogs home, it becomes clear that Dan’s wounds are much worse than they appeared to be. Billy remains in denial of the fatal nature of the wounds, however, maintaining his belief that there’s still a way for Old Dan to pull through if he can just make it home to Mama and Papa’s care.
Back at the house, Billy wakes his parents. Mama immediately gets to work on Old Dan’s terrible wounds, washing his entrails and sewing him back up. Little Ann is easier to tend to. As Billy works on Ann, he tells his parents about how Dan and Ann saved him from the mountain lion. After Mama finishes sewing Dan up, Billy and his parents sit and wait with him on the porch to see what will happen. Before daybreak, however, Dan begins struggling to breathe—soon, he is dead. Mama and Papa try to comfort Billy by reminding him that he still has Little Ann, but Billy states that he’ll never be able to forget that Dan gave his life so that he himself could live.
Billy is devastated as Dan dies. His gratitude for the fact that Dan gave his life so that Billy could survive the mountain lion attack is outweighed by his misery over losing his beloved dog. Billy once valued his dogs’ almost automatic, unthinking devotion—now, however, he finds himself nearly resentful of the fact that Dan was loyal to the point of such selflessness.
Mama and Papa go to bed, but Billy stays up by the fire. Around dawn, he hears a mournful cry. He goes out to the porch to see Ann curled around Dan’s lifeless body, whimpering and crying. Billy runs away from the house into the woods and breaks down in horrible sobs. When he is finished crying, he returns to the house and begins building a box to bury Dan inn. When the box is finished, he digs a grave on the hillside and solemnly buries Dan.
Billy tries to control his emotions and keep them hidden from those around him, even as the intensity of what he’s feeling is obviously the thing that’s controlling him in these painful and tender moments. Billy doesn’t want to add to Ann’s suffering—but little does he know there’s no helping her recover from Dan’s death.
Two days later, Billy realizes that the worst is not over. When he comes in from working in the field with Papa, Mama tells him that Little Ann has been refusing food all day and that she’s now disappeared. Billy calls and calls for Ann, eventually finding her in a bush at the very back of the property. As Billy looks into her eyes, he sees that there is “no life” in them anymore. Billy brings Ann back up to the house and he attempts to feed her, but Papa tells Billy that Ann has lost the will to live.
Little Ann’s devotion to Old Dan is so intense that she loses her will to live after watching him die. Ann and Dan are still connected, even after Dan’s death—and she is determined to be with him no matter what, for reasons Billy can’t understand.
Billy nurses Ann all night and all day, but when he goes out to work with Papa for a bit, he comes back to find that Ann has left her spot on the porch. Billy knows that she has gone to Dan’s grave to die. He goes to the grave and, sure enough, he finds Ann’s lifeless body atop Dan’s resting place. Billy cries and he turns his face to the heavens. He asks God why his dogs had to die—and why he now must suffer. Mama approaches Billy and she comforts him by telling him that “even the Good Lord suffered while He was here on earth”—and that the dogs have “fulfilled a prayer that [she] thought would never be answered.” Mama tells Billy to come up to the house—she and Papa want to talk with him. Mama believes that Billy may feel better once he’s heard what they have to say.
Billy’s pain doubles when he realizes that Ann has given up her life to be with Dan. Losing one dog was hard—losing both feels like a curse. Billy doesn’t understand the reasoning behind his dogs’ deaths—and though his mother and father try to comfort him with important tenets of their faith, Billy remains unable to see why God would give him his dogs only take them away.
Back inside, Papa tells Billy that now is the time to “stand up like a man” and accept that there is a reason for everything God does. Over a dinner of sweet potato pie, Papa tells Billy that he and Mama have been praying each day to be able to save enough money to move the family into town so that Billy and his sisters can get an education. Papa says that because of Dan and Ann’s success at the competition, their prayers have been answered—they now have enough money to move.
Billy’s dogs fulfilled a purpose in his own life by teaching him important lessons about love, loyalty, hard work, and determination. Learning that they fulfilled a purpose in the lives of his family members, too, makes Billy feel proud but not necessarily comforted.
Billy concedes that God may have given the dogs to him in order to fulfill Mama and Papa’s prayers—but Billy wonders aloud why He took them away. Papa says there is an answer for that, too. He and Mama had decided a while ago not to separate Billy from his dogs when the family moved to town—they planned to leave Billy and the dogs with Grandpa. Now, though, their family will be able to move to town together—they won’t be split up.
While Billy can understand that perhaps his dogs didn’t die in vain—perhaps they served a larger purpose of allowing Billy’s family to stay together—even his faith in God’s plans doesn’t fully comfort him in this devastating time of mourning.
In the middle of the night, Billy gets up and goes out to the doghouse to cry. Mama hears him outside. She comes out to get him and bring him back in. Billy cries himself to sleep. In the morning, he gets up and he makes a second box. He goes up to the hillside and he digs a second grave. Billy buries Ann right next to Dan—and he feels he has buried “a part of [his] life” alongside both of them. Upon returning to the house, Billy asks Mama if she believes that God has made a place in heaven for good dogs. Mama says she believes He has. Billy says he hopes his dogs are there.
As Billy grieves his dogs, he doesn’t try to control his emotions—and his parents don’t try to stop him from feeling his feelings, either. Billy isn’t exaggerating when he says that “a part of [his] life” has been buried alongside the dogs—the carefree optimism, the trust in nature, and the pure love of the hunt they helped him feel is gone.