Though Billy is thrilled to have his pups at last, he soon realizes that another obstacle stands before him: in order to train Old Dan and Little Ann to hunt raccoons, he’ll first need a raccoon skin to help them learn the scent. For weeks, Billy tries to catch a raccoon in the traps Papa got for him—but he fails each and every time. Frustrated, Billy goes to visit Grandpa at the store, knowing that his grandfather was once a skilled raccoon hunter. Grandpa goes out to his tool shed and he retrieves a couple of simple tools. He fills a sack with nails and he tells Billy that if Billy follows a very specific set of instructions, he’ll have his raccoon in no time.
Here, Rawls shows yet again how Billy’s grandfather is an important and influential figure in his life. Grandpa is just as wily as the raccoons he spent his youth trapping. As he teaches Billy important lessons about the natural world, he also helps Billy to learn more about himself and his own capabilities.
Grandpa instructs Billy to drop a piece of shiny tin inside a hole in a log in the woods. He tells Billy to hammer in the nails around the hole in the log at opposite slants to one another. Grandpa tells Billy that raccoons, being such curious animals, will try to get the piece of tin out of the bottom of the log—but when they try to pull out their fisted paw, it’ll catch on the nails. Billy protests that all the raccoon would need to do to escape the trap is open its fist and slip through, but Grandpa insists that a raccoon will never release its grip on something bright and shiny—he had a pet raccoon as a boy and he learned from its “peculiar” behaviors. Billy heads home, excited to try out Grandpa’s “wonderful” plan the following day.
Grandpa clearly knows a lot about how raccoons behave. The novel overwhelmingly shows that knowledge of the natural world allows one to possess a deeper knowledge of the self, and Rawls accordingly makes it clear that Grandpa is a man with knowledge not just of the world around him, but of the world within himself.
The next morning, Billy gets to work collecting pieces of tin and using them to lay traps in a series of sycamore logs along the riverbed. Billy sets a total of 14 traps and he goes to bed that night excited to see what he’ll catch. At first light, Billy bounds out of bed and he rushes down to the riverbed to check his traps—but he’s dismayed to realize that he’s caught nothing. Billy returns home feeling discouraged, but Papa warns him not to lose hope—it takes about a week, he says, for a human’s scent to disappear from the wilderness. Pretty soon, Papa says, Billy scent will evaporate, and the raccoons will start to go near the traps.
Billy is eager to start conquering the natural world—as well as the world within himself. He wants to explore his capabilities as a hunter and thus to tame not just the animals he’s trapping, but his own spirit.
Sure enough, after a week, Billy goes out to check his traps and finds that he has caught a raccoon. The raccoon is hissing mad as Billy comes upon it struggling in the trap. Little Ann and Old Dan begin barking and whimpering at the raccoon. Billy releases their collars and he lets them rush the raccoon. Billy watches the pups tussle with the raccoon—but when the raccoon fights back, Billy retrieves his pups, scoops them up in his arms, and runs for home.
As Billy traps his first raccoon, he begins to realize that growing up, coming of age, and taming the wild world within oneself is inextricably tied with violence and death.
As Billy bounds into the yard, Mama begins crying—she asks Billy if he’s been bitten by a snake. He excitedly tells her he’s caught a raccoon, but when he sees the depth of her worry, he, too, begins crying and apologizes for scaring her. Papa comes over and he hands Mama his handkerchief. After comforting her, he tells Billy that it’s time for them to go get the raccoon. He suggests Mama and Billy’s sisters come along to watch the show. On the way back through the woods, Mama notices some blood on Billy’s shirt. After investigating, Billy realizes that the blood is coming from Old Dan’s nose—the raccoon scratched it hard.
This passage demonstrates what a serious fighter Old Dan is even as a pup. He doesn’t hesitate to throw himself into the fray to please Billy—even when it means sustaining injuries or facing down danger.
The Colmans come upon the raccoon. Everyone stands back as Papa picks up a large stick and he begins beating the raccoon to death. Billy’s sisters start to cry, so Mama leads them away—but Billy watches transfixed and unafraid. After delivering the final blow, Papa begins pulling the nails from the trap—sure enough, as he pulls the raccoons paw from the hole, he and Billy see that the raccoon still has the shiny piece of tin locked firmly in its grasp. Papa suddenly grows grave and sad. He suggests that Billy take all the nails out of the traps—it’s not hunting season in the first place, and trapping raccoons this way, he says, isn’t “sportsmanlike.” Now that Billy has his first hide, Papa says, it’s time to train the dogs to catch raccoons and stop relying on unfair traps. Billy agrees with his father.
This passage demonstrates that those who want to grow up and tame the natural world (and the unknowable world within themselves) must often bear witness to violence and death. Billy’s mother and sisters are too emotionally fragile to watch the bloody act Papa perpetrates—but Billy knows that if he wants to make it as a hunter, he needs to be able to witness and understand the endless circle of life and death of which all nature is a part.
The next day, Billy begins giving his dogs hunting lessons using the raccoon’s skins. As Billy’s pups learn to work the trails he lays for them, he watches them go from “awkward” to beautiful. Old Dan’s eagerness is tempered by Little Ann’s wily smarts—together, the dogs learn how to follow the winding and sometimes difficult trails that raccoons can set in order to outwit predators. Billy teaches his dogs to swim, knowing that raccoons often cross rivers in an attempt to throw predators off—it is not long before Billy’s dogs love the water. Billy teaches his dogs all of the tricks he can think of. In order to learn more, he starts hanging around Grandpa’s store and listening to the tales that the hunters who shop there tell one another.
As Billy watches his dogs work, he learns a lot about their personalities. He sees how they help and complement each other in terms of strengths and weaknesses—and, above all, how they work tirelessly to please their master. Billy is starting to feel like a real hunter as he and his dogs train to conquer the natural world together.
At the end of the summer, Billy is exhausted from having worked with Old Dan and Little Ann each and every day. He calls the dogs over at the end of a training session and he speaks to them as if they’re people, letting them know that hunting season will start in a few days and that it’s time to put all they’ve learned to the test. Though the dogs don’t answer Billy with words, as humans would, he sees their “answer” in the glint of their eyes and the wag of their tails. Billy is grateful that his dogs always find a way to answer him.
This passage shows how deeply Billy’s relationship with his dogs has evolved in just a short period of time. Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann seem to understand one another innately—their bond breaks down the barriers between their species.