Bless the Beasts and Children opens with John Cotton's dream, in which he and five of his fellow campers at Box Canyon Boys Camp are herded into an enclosed space, three at a time. The first three, Teft, Shecker, and Lally one, disappear and the next three then enter the field. Confused by their friends' absence, Cotton, Goodenow, and Lally two walk through an open gate. First, Goodenow falls to the ground, followed shortly after by Lally two. Cotton then recognizes the smell of blood. He goes angry and attempts to escape from the fenced-in field. He then turns to look through the barrel of a shotgun at his mother's face as she blasts a bullet through his brain. Cotton awakens in his camp cabin, checking to make sure all his cabin mates are present. Listening to the radios that lure his fellow cabin mates to sleep, Cotton recalls the difficulties they have in the evenings, milling about and exhibiting their respective eccentricities. Cotton recognizes their improvement since the beginning of their stay at the camp, but recalls the disappointing events of the previous day. They had taken a trip to the Petrified Forest, after which the campers had dinner and Goodenow vomited. After recalling these events, Cotton soon realizes that only four, rather than the customary five radios are playing. Surveying the cabin, he concludes that Lally two has run away. He mobilizes the campers to search for Lally two; they dress themselves and leave the cabin.
The five campers head out toward the highway, where Lally two told his brother that he planned to hitch a ride. Cotton suggests they listen for his radio, but they hear nothing. Suddenly they spot Lally two in the middle of the road, and he darts into the woods to flee from them. They soon close in on him, sitting on a boulder and sucking his thumb. First Cotton speaks with him alone, emphasizing that the six boys have become a team, and must work together. The other boys then join Cotton and Lally two, and Cotton begins to speak about Lally two's escape. When Lally two pipes out to suggest that he has not been alone in his desire to leave the camp, the other boys agree with him, and start to entertain the notion of leaving the camp for the night to liberate the buffalo from their deaths. The group contemplates their chances of arriving back at the camp in time for daylight, and their readiness for such an ambitious adventure. This group of boys occupies the lowest position among the different groups at Box Canyon Boys Camp, an Arizona camp where many affluent parents sent their sons. Cotton proposes a vote, and the boys unanimously support their leaving the camp. Proud and determined, Cotton also contributes his support.
Cotton instructs the boys to bring warm clothes and whatever else they might want. Lally one had thrown a temper tantrum, and killed his brother's pets, when Cotton had prevented him from sending a letter home. The boys wear jackets with BC written on the backs. Each camper, in fitting with the style of the day, wears some type of identifying headgear as well. Attempting to roll a car in which they found they keys, out to the road, Cotton finds it impossible despite his best efforts. The Box Canyon Boys Camp contained several competing, hierarchical groups, each given the name of a Native American tribe. Campers traditionally called their group, the least respected in the camp, "the Bedwetters." Teft suggests stealing a car, and Cotton sees it as the only real option. Returning the car, they spot the camp director having a cigarette. Although he seems to look right at them, they pass without notice.
Glendon Swarthout begins the book with an epigraph, excerpted from the childhood nursery rhyme "Little Boy Blue," which reads, "But where is the boy who looks after the sheep? He's under the haystack, fast asleep. Will you wake him? No not I. For if I do, He'll be sure to cry." Although this epigraph may initially baffle the reader, when considered in the novel's context it seems fitting. Swarthout equates the sheep to the buffalo and the little boy with the Bedwetters, the general American public, and the nation's future generations. Unaware of the annual buffalo killings, the boys soon become morose and sickened when they discover the reality. Much as the boys discover this practice, so would the American public be awakened by Swarthout's account of the government's deeds. This knowledge not only shocks and saddens the boys, but also results in a profound loss of innocence that becomes one element of their growing manhood.
Cotton's dream establishes the many parallels he will draw between the buffalo and the Bedwetters. In his dream, Cotton easily imagines himself as a victim of such a slaughter as he has witnessed the previous day, implying that he regards himself as forgotten and abused, much like the buffalo. He also has a natural empathy for the animals' situation, which hints at his caring and generous spirit. Cotton, the reader will later discover, has significant problems with his mother's behavior, and these problems manifest themselves in his mother's role as the shooter in his dream.
In the first few chapters of the novel, the author accentuates the Bedwetters' eccentricities and insecurities, vividly describing the cabin scene to the reader. He also hints at their lack of solidarity and their tendency to bicker. Establishing these traits in the beginning of the novel sets the scene for a set of extremely dynamic characters. Without their leader, Cotton, however, this unity might not have been possible. Recognizing that no individual Bedwetter would survive on his own, either in the camp setting or on the mission, Cotton emphasizes the need for teamwork. He involves everyone in the decision-making processes and voting.
In a technique he continues to use throughout the novel, Swarthout effectively employs italics to comment on the characters' individual backgrounds and disorders. By inserting these passages into the narrative, the author refers to their past experiences and allows the reader a more intimate perspective on their thoughts and feelings. In these first chapters, for example, the author discusses Goodenow's bedwetting habit and suicide attempts, Billy Lally's imaginary friends "the Ooms," who live in his family's sauna, and Lally one's violent behavior toward his brother's pets. In addition, italics mark occasional descriptions of a camp life in which an atmosphere of cruel competition thrives. The Bedwetters occupy the very lowest of positions in the social hierarchy of the camp. Each cabin at Box Canyon Boys Camp adopts the name of an Indian tribe. The rivaling cabins compete for the title of the Apaches, the most respected of all tribes. However, this group of boys has no name except the Bedwetters, and receive only ridicule and mockery from their fellow campers.