On the first day of hunting season, Billy calms his anxiety by making preparations for the coming night, when he and the dogs will go out to hunt their first raccoons. Billy cleans his lantern, greases his boots, and sharpens his ax. As Billy is in the midst of preparing, his father approaches him for a heart-to-heart. Papa warns Billy that because Mama is so nervous about Billy being out hunting all night, it’s important that Billy let them know where he’ll be each night—just in case his parents need to go out and look for him. Billy privately thinks that his father is no longer talking to him like he’s a little boy—he’s talking to him as a man would talk to another man.
As Billy’s relationships with his dogs have grown and his prowess as a hunter has evolved, he has grown up. Billy has witnessed violence and death and he’s begun to understand more about the circle of life and the cycles of the natural world. Even though Billy is, of course, still a young boy rather than an adult man, he delights in experiencing a new chapter in his relationship with his father.
That night, as Billy prepares to head out on the hunt, Mama fusses over him and she tells him that she doesn’t approve of his hunting. Papa defends Billy, observing that he’s “getting to be a good-size man now.” Mama admits that she knows Billy is growing up but she says she doesn’t like it one bit. Billy promises his mother that he’ll be careful. She tells him that she will pray for his safety each and every night. Billy feels some hesitation about heading out, but Papa urges him to get going while the raccoons are just beginning to stir. Billy heads out to the porch with his lantern, where Old Dan and Little Ann are already waiting excitedly. Mama and Papa marvel at how intuitive the dogs are.
Mama and Papa have very different feelings about this momentous night, which represents Billy’s coming of age. Mama turns to her faith for comfort while Papa places his trust in the natural world and Billy’s ability to understand it and move within it. Both of them are comforted by how devoted Little Ann and Old Dan are to Billy—they know that the dogs Billy has poured so much love into will give that love and care back to him.
Billy sets off into the frosty, beautiful Ozark darkness with his dogs beside them. He talks to Little Ann and Old Dan, reminding them that tonight is the “real thing.” As excited as Billy is, he still takes the time to appreciate the “peaceful” sounds and sights of nature all around him as he heads deeper into the mountains. He is startled and happy when Old Dan lets out the bawl which lets Billy know the dog has found a raccoon’s scent—Billy nearly drops his lantern out of anticipation. As Little Ann’s voice joins Dan’s and the two set out on the trail, Billy begins crying for reasons he can’t name or understand.
In this passage, Billy becomes overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude for his dogs, for nature, and for the steadfastness he himself has shown as he’s worked toward this night—the culmination of his life’s dreams. Billy can’t hide his emotions—and out here in nature, he doesn’t feel he has to.
The raccoon plays many tricks on Dan and Ann as it leads them through the woods, crossing the river and darting this way and that. Old Dan whines to Billy, but Billy tells Dan that he needs to pick the trail back up himself. Dan excitedly gets back to work. Little Ann leaps into the river and soon Dan follows her—they work from bank to bank to pick up the trail, and Billy is full of pride as he witnesses their determination and resolve in action for the first time. After over an hour, however, the dogs are no closer to finding the wily raccoon. When the dogs approach Billy, wet and panting, he calls them off and he tells them they did their best.
This first hunt is important to Billy simply because it represents the fact that he has achieved his dreams—he has his dogs, he’s trained them to hunt, and he’s out in the wild alone. When Billy believes his dogs have failed, he’s not hurt or upset by it—but at the same time, his willingness to accept failure in this passage is not indicative of the devotion and hard work his dogs have shown him. Dan and Ann know that both they and Billy deserve more.
Just as Billy picks up his things and prepares to lead his dogs home, however, Little Ann begins bawling and running down the bank. Old Dan follows her. Billy realizes that his dogs have scented the raccoon again, and he stands still, waiting. Soon, he watches a raccoon streak by—and sees that his dogs are not far behind it. Billy whoops and cheers as Ann and Dan successfully “tree” their first raccoon by chasing the raccoon up into a tree and surrounding the base so the animal cannot escape. As Billy approaches the tree where the raccoon is caught, however, he groans—Ann and Dan have trapped the raccoon in the tallest sycamore in the valley, a giant tree which Billy has admired for years.
Billy is shocked, amused, and a bit dismayed when his dogs tree their first real raccoon in the largest tree in the valley. This new trial in front of him represents the ways in which life continually tests people—Billy is learning that growing up means one must constantly face new and increasingly difficult physical and emotional challenges.
Billy takes stock of the tree. Though he can see a hollow limb near the top where the raccoon must be hiding, he knows the tree is too tall to climb and too big to fell with his ax. He tells Little Ann and Old Dan that it’s time to give up and go find another raccoon—Dan and Ann, however, continue to paw and whine at the tree and they refuse to leave it. Billy knows that he has promised his dogs many times that once they treed a raccoon, he would do the rest—he realizes he cannot let his dogs down, even if felling the tree takes “a whole year.”
In this passage, Billy experiences a swift and decisive change of heart. After seeing how devoted his dogs are to him and to the hunt itself, he decides to embody their relentless nature and to take the work of hunting as seriously as they do—even if it means he has to work much harder than he thought he’d have to.
Billy begins chipping away at the tree with his ax. He works through the night, bolstered and encouraged by his dogs as they lick his face and bark, seemingly helping to cheer him on. By daybreak, though, Billy is so exhausted that he slumps against the tree and he falls asleep. He is awakened sometime later by the sound of Papa calling for him. Billy calls back to let his father know where he is. Soon, Papa comes into view—he is riding the family’s mule and looking concerned. As Papa comes upon Billy and inspects his work on the tree, he pieces together what has happened.
Even with Billy’s newfound determination to make his dogs proud and to follow through on his promise to them, Billy is daunted by the hard work in front of him. Billy needs the support not just of his dogs, but of his family, in order to see the job through.
Papa explains that Mama was worried sick when Billy didn’t come home. Billy tries to hold back his tears of shame and remorse. Papa, however, insists he isn’t scolding Billy—in fact, he says, he’s proud of Billy for working so hard. Papa asks why Billy won’t just give up. Billy replies that he made a promise to his dogs and he intends to make good on it. Papa solemnly agrees that “if a man’s word isn’t any good, he's no good himself.” Papa heads back home, promising to tell Mama what’s going on and to send Billy’s sister down with lunch later on.
When Billy becomes emotional or cries in front of his father, Papa never scolds him—instead, Papa congratulates Billy on his depth of feeling and his commitment to both himself and his dogs. This sends the important message to Billy that coming of age and becoming a man doesn’t mean a person has to suppress their feelings.
Billy resumes work on the tree and he chops all morning until his sister visits with lunch. When Billy’s sister sees how hard he’s working, she tells him that he’s “crazy as a bedbug” and she warns him that he’s losing his mind. Billy shoos his sister back up toward the house and then he sits down with his meal. He finds a package of scraps for Old Dan and Little Ann tucked in with his own food. After the three of them eat, Billy resumes work on the tree—and his dogs keep watching every move he makes.
Billy is determined not to let his dogs down even in the face of physical exhaustion or ridicule from his family. He knows that he has made them a promise—and that seeing that promise through, especially on their first hunt ever, is crucial to how their relationship will continue to grow and progress.