We start the novel in present day. Well, not our present day, but the author's present day. Which is actually the 1960s. So, let's try this again.
We start the novel in the 1960s. On his way home from work, the author hears a dogfight between a hound and several other dogs. Seeing the hound makes him remember two other hounds from way back when. Cue flashback.
All of a sudden, we're way back when, which is about 50 years earlier. We aren't told exactly, but our Wayback Machine tells us it's the 1910-20s. That old guy from before is now a twelve-year-old boy desperate for a pair of Redbone Coonhounds. The problem is that Billy's parents are poor. Not super poor, but poor enough that they're not about to run off and buy him a pair of purebred dogs. So Billy takes matters into his own hands. After two years of saving up, he finally has enough money to buy a pair of hounds.
The dogs are everything he ever dreamed they would be. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann. Old Dan is strong, brave, and stubborn. He is also, and there is no kind way to say this, a little dumb. Little Ann on the other hand is really, really, smart, like almost freakishly smart. (She's also the runt of the litter, so she's super small.)
The three of them (Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann) are inseparable. They hunt and hunt and hunt, and then they hunt some more. Seriously, most of this book is Billy in the woods hunting with his dogs. Billy sells his raccoon skins at his grandfather's store, but gives all the money to his dad. Sweet kid, right? He doesn't care about the money, he just wants to keep on hunting.
Billy earns a reputation in his small town for having the best hunting dogs around. His grandfather enters Billy in a hunting competition, convinced Billy can win. And surprise! After an epic hunt through a snowstorm, Billy wins the whole thing. Plus Little Ann wins the best-looking dog contest. Take that, haters!
After the hunting competition, things settle down a bit. One day Billy goes hunting and is attacked by a mountain lion. Get ready, because this isn't going to end well. His dogs protect him by jumping between him and the lion. After a bloody battle, Billy and his dogs manage to kill the mountain lion, but not without Old Dan suffering a fatal wound and dying.
As if things couldn't get any worse, a few days later Billy notices Little Ann has stopped eating. He wonders if she is sick from the battle, but it turns out she is heartsick over losing Old Dan. So, she crawls up to Old Dan's grave and dies. Look, we told you to get the tissues ready.
Billy's parents tell him that because of his dogs the family now has enough money to move to town. Billy and his sisters can now get a real education. Surprise, Billy doesn't care about school. He just wants his dogs back. He goes super emo on his parents and tells them he doesn't believe in God anymore.
When Billy visits their graves one last time before moving to town, he sees that a red fern has sprouted between the two graves. His first instinct is to chop it down but then he remembers a legend that says that a red fern symbolizes sacred ground, and only an angel can only plant one. All right! Billy snaps out of his emo phase, dyes his hair back to its normal color (kidding), and regains his faith.