Summary – Chapters Nineteen and Twenty
In Chapter Nineteen, it is related how once he is back at home the hunting carries on as before. One night, he is sure his dogs have ‘treed’ a bobcat and the fourth time they tree the same animal Little Ann comes to Billy and he knows something is wrong. Old Dan is acting strangely too and when Billy looks in the tree he sees a ‘devil cat’ (a mountain lion).
When the lion jumps from the tree, Old Dan meets it in the air and is bowled over. The lion is also thrown off balance and Little Ann darts in and her jaws close on the lion’s throat. The lion fights back and Little Ann cries in pain and Billy joins in and fights the lion with his ax. The lion turns on him, but his dogs come immediately between them.
In the moonlight, he strikes at the lion again in its back and blood sprays out. The lion stands and claws the air until it finally falls to the ground dead. Billy is hit by it and is knocked out. When he comes round, he sees the lifeless body of the lion and notices his dogs are still glued to it.
He checks them over and finds Little Ann has been injured but not fatally. Old Dan is still gripping the lion and Billy prises his jaws open with the handle of his ax. He examines him and sees he is a bloody mess and wonders if he will ever see again from his injured eye. He thinks he is bleeding to death and with tears running down his cheeks he mixes Old Dan’s blood with soil and works it into another wound to stop him bleeding. In the light of the lantern he is able to see the bleeding has now almost stopped. He puts his arms around both of his dogs and knows they have saved him. He tells them he will never forget this.
Billy walks on toward home and has not gone far when he thinks he hears a cry. He realizes Old Dan is not behind him and finds him lying on his side ‘pleading for help’. He sees his entrails tangled in the low branches of a huckleberry bush. He had overlooked this wound on his earlier inspection and as they walked the entrails had ‘worked out’. With shaking hands he wipes them and places them back in the wound. He leaves the ax and lantern, picks Old Dan up and carries him home wrapped in his coat.
At home, he wakes his parents and together they doctor the dogs. His mother cleans out the entrails, replaces them and sews the wound back up.
He tells his parents about what happened and also says how they saved his life. His mother sobs and his father comforts her. Old Dan’s breathing grows faster and faster and there is then a terrible rattling in his throat. Billy kneels and lays Old Dan’s head on his lap. Just before his last breath, he gives a feeble thump of his tail and ‘his friendly gray eyes closed forever’.
Billy cannot believe he has died and looks to his mother for help, but she cannot speak. His father carries Old Dan out and lays him on the porch. Billy insists on staying up and feels numb all over. He then hears a noise in the porch and initially thinks his dog has come back to life. He goes outside and finds Little Ann there.
She has slept with her brother all her life and has come to snuggle up to him. She looks at Billy and this is more than he can stand. He runs until he trips over, gets up and runs until he falls over at the riverbank. There he cries till he can cry no more.
When it is dawn, he returns home. His father tells him breakfast is ready, but Billy says he does not want any and he is going to bury Old Dan alone. He makes a box for him and he digs his grave on the hillside at the foot of a beautiful red oak. It is possible to see the country for miles from this position and thinks Old Dan will be able to hear the hounds from here.
He thinks about the K.C. Baking Powder can and remembers the time he first saw his pups. He then thinks of how he earned the money to buy them and tells Old Dan he was worth it, ‘a thousand times over’.
Two days later his father says Little Ann has not been eating. He looks for her everywhere and she does not answer his call. He finds her eventually and she is hidden far under a blackberry bush and her eyes are now dull and cloudy. He carries her to the house, but she still refuses food and water and he checks her for wounds and finds none. His father says she has lost the will to live, but he refuses to believe this. However, she responds to nothing he tries.
She is the same the next day and when he comes in from working on the fields his mother tells him Little Ann has walked away (and could hardly stand). He thinks she will be at Old Dan’s grave, and this is the case. He thinks she is still alive when he finds her because of the way she is lying with her head on the grave. She does not move, though, as she has used the last of her energy to get there.
His mother appears and he asks her why they had to die and wants to know what he has done wrong. She tries to comfort him and says everyone suffers at one time or another, ‘even the Good Lord’. She says he will always have his memories and he might get more dogs. He rebels at this idea. She persuades him to come home and they cover Little Ann temporarily with his coat and lay her on leaves.
When they reach home, his mother tells the others about what has happened. His sisters cry and his father tells him how there are times in a boy’s life when he has to stand up ‘like a man’. He also says the ‘Good Lord’ has a reason for everything He does, but Billy cannot understand this. He is shown a shoebox full of money (that his mother has saved from the money he has earned and won from hunting). His father tells him his mother has prayed that they would have enough money one day to move into town to give the children an education. He says that because of the dogs her prayers have been answered.
Billy asks why God gave him his dogs only to take them away again. His father says there is an answer to that as he and his mother had not wanted to take him from his dogs and were going to leave him with his grandpa for a while when they moved to town. He thinks the Lord does not want to split a family up, though.
Before bed, Billy says he wants to be alone when he buries Little Ann. He explains that she used to peek into his window every night to check on him and thinks this is why he wants to be with her now.
The next day he makes another, smaller box and buries her beside Old Dan. He says he also buries a part of himself at the same time. Later, he asks his mother if she thinks God has made a heaven for all good dogs. When she says yes, he tells her this makes him feel a little better.
In the final chapter, the family leave the Ozarks the following spring and everyone looks happy on the day of the move. Just before leaving, Billy says goodbye to his dogs at their graves. When he comes up close, he sees a red fern is growing between the two graves.
He has heard an old Native American legend about the fern. This is about a Native American boy and girl who were lost in a blizzard and froze to death. In the spring when they were found, a red fern had grown between them. The story also says that only an angel is able to plant the seeds of the red fern. Wherever one grows, the spot is regarded as sacred and they never die.
He shouts for his mother and when she sees it she gasps. In awe, she says how she has always wanted to see one. His father says this could be God’s way of helping Billy to understand why his dogs died. Billy agrees and says he does not hurt anymore.
They leave him alone again so he can say a last goodbye and he knows he will never forget them. Before their wagon leaves for good, his mother points back to the red fern.
The chapter and novel ends with the narrator explaining he has never been back to the Ozarks, but would like to see his old home and the surrounding area again. He is sure the red fern will still be there and will be covering the two graves.
Analysis – Chapters Nineteen and Twenty
Chapter Nineteen offers an emotional and even traumatic account of the deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann. The readers are given no chance to escape the harrowing nature of this ending of Billy’s childhood. However, the mood is lightened somewhat in the final chapter when he sees the eponymous red fern growing between the graves of the two dogs. The presence of the fern endows their graves with a spiritual meaning taking from Native American legend, and this in turn endows the dogs’ lives with a spiritual significance.