Old Yeller: Best Doggone Dog in the West

SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never watched “Old Yeller” all the way through and thus don’t know why it’s the saddest movie ever made but think that someday you might give it a go, stop reading now. I’m fixing to tell how the story ends.

My interest in the beloved 1957 Disney film was rekindled when I wrote last week’s column about Kamala and the dog park. Though her lineage is unknown, Kamala likely has a lot of mountain cur in her. That fact prompted some readers to point out that Old Yeller was also a mountain cur, which isn’t entirely true. In Fred Gipson’s novel, upon which the movie was based, Yeller was referred to as a “yellow, black-mouthed cur.” But in the movie, his breed was never specified.

Old Yeller was portrayed on the big screen by a canine actor named Spike, who was a not a cur but a mastador, a mix between a mastiff and a Labrador Retriever. He was big and strong and smart and extraordinarily brave.

The story takes place just after the Civil War. Jim Coates, his wife Katie and their two sons, Travis and younger brother Arliss, live on a farm in Salt Lick, Texas. As the movie opens, Jim is preparing to depart on a months-long cattle drive to raise some “cash money,” leaving 14-year-old Travis as the man in charge. Arliss soon takes up with an “ugly lop-eared mongrel” (Travis’s words) and names him Old Yeller.

At first, Yeller seems to be nothing but trouble. He steals the middling meat that’s hanging from the porch rafters. He chases a rabbit into the field where Travis is plowing, spooking Jumper the mule and causing him to knock down a fence. But Yeller soon proves his worth. He saves Arliss from an angry mother bear. He chases a gaze of raccoons out of the corn field. And he literally sacrifices his own hide when a sounder of wild hogs attacks Travis. (Until I wrote this column, I didn’t know the terms “gaze” or “sounder” as they apply to a group of the aforementioned animals. They’re interesting words. I’m glad I learned them.)

Not surprisingly, Travis and Yeller become best buddies. Then, alas, Yeller’s real owner shows up. But being a real fine fellow, he suggests swapping the dog for Arliss’s horned toad and a home-cooked meal. He also warns Travis, out of earshot of the others, that “hydrophoby” is rampant in the area and that he must be on high alert.

It isn’t long before the dreaded disease arrives at the Coates farmstead. Rose, the longhorn milk cow, stumbles, foaming at the mouth, into the yard and must be shot. While Katie and a neighbor girl burn the cow’s body, a wolf arrives at the blazing fire and threatens them. No healthy wolf would do that. But Yeller races to the rescue, fighting with even more ferocity than when he tangled with the angry mother bear. Travis, who—thank goodness—is impressively skilled with a long gun, kills the wolf. But he and his mother both realize what the attack and the fight mean.

Yeller must be locked in the corn crib to see if he’ll get sick.

I won’t go into more detail because I’ve already cried enough in the retelling of this sad, sad story. But I will say there’s hope at the end. The great circle of life continues. And while I’m proud that Kamala, unlike Spike, is a member of the noble mountain cur breed, I would be exceedingly proud if she also has a little bit of Old Yeller in her. You never know when I might need protecting from a gaze of raccoons or a sounder of wild hogs.

(April 3, 2021)