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Young Jody Baxter lives with his parents, Ora and Ezra "Penny" Baxter, on a small farm in the animal-filled central Florida backwoods in the 1870s. His parents had six other children before him, but they died in infancy, which makes it difficult for his mother to bond with him. Jody loves the outdoors and his family. He has wanted a pet for as long as he can remember, but his mother says that they barely have enough food to feed themselves, let alone a pet.
A subplot involves the hunt for an old bear named Slewfoot that randomly attacks the Baxter livestock. Later the Baxters and the rowdy Forresters get in a fight about the bear and continue to fight about nearly anything. (While the Forresters are presented as a disreputable clan, the disabled youngest brother, Fodder-Wing, is a close friend to Jody.) The Forresters steal the Baxters' hogs and, while Penny and Jody are out searching for the stolen stock, Penny is bitten in the arm by a rattlesnake. Penny shoots a doe, orphaning its young fawn, in order to use its liver to draw out the snake's venom, which saves Penny's life.