Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Incident with cane brings back memories of Freckles

I was mowing the yard the other day, and had gotten into the short rows, as we used to say.  

Finished up out front by the well, next to that big patch of foxtail cane, which sort of shades the grass out next to it this time of year.  My philosophy has always been, “If it don’t need mowing, don’t mow it,” so I was mowing up to the shaded grass, swinging around, backing up to get lined up on the next swath, and giving it the gun.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

As I backed up into the cane once, I felt a sharp pain, and fortunately was already pushing forward on the shift. I stopped and turned around.

My old football coach, John Woolley, used to bird hunt with me and Big Robert, and his shorthair lady bird dog, Princess, had a “drop litter,” which was a setter/pointer mix. Coach gave us the runt, a small male he called Wart, who was covered with small brown spots on a white background.

 Big Robert renamed him “Freckles,” and they were inseparable. Freckles only weighed about 40 pounds when he was grown, and he’d ride around in the pickup with Daddy, sitting so close that folks often voiced a wonder at which one was actually driving the truck.

Freckles was a clown, one of those happy dogs who wanted everyone else to be happy around him. He was a crackerjack bird dog, though he never froze on point; his tail would wag real slowly on birds – bobwhites – and when he accidentally pointed a rabbit now and then, he’d look around behind him in apology as you walked up, gun ready. But he’d hold that point, just in case you did want to shoot the rabbit. Freckles was a practical, hunt-for-the-pot dog.

One February afternoon, Big Robert was out with Albert Andrews, and Freckles had found that covey up at the Pea Hole. Daddy never trained his dogs to be staunch at the flush, and the little spotted drop was so fast that he’d sometimes catch a slow-flyer that flushed too low.

The covey flushed, the men shot, and the singles scattered into that old school section woods, Freckles right behind them. The men heard a curious “Yip,” and Big Robert strode over to see about his dog.

Freckles came out of a switchcane brake limping, holding his foreleg up off the ground. There was a little blood at the juncture of leg and chest, but not much.  

Daddy handed Albert his gun, picked up the dog, and cradled him as he walked briskly to the pickup. It was only seven miles to Dr. Ross, the vet we used then. Doc couldn’t find anything wrong using a probe, but suggested that Big Robert leave Freckles for the night, which he did.

The next morning, Dr. Ross called with the bad news. The little clown had passed on during the night, and the vet wanted to do an autopsy to find out why. He called later on to say that apparently when Freckles ran into that cane patch, he had run chest-on into a sharp broken-off piece of cane, which had pierced his hide just like a knife, stopping just short of the heart.  

It had broken off when the dog jumped back, so that no one could see the sharp piece inside him, too deep to feel with the probe. Sometime during the night, Freckles had moved his foreleg, essentially stabbing himself in the heart. Death was quick, but Big Robert never had another bird dog after that.

I thought of all that rather quickly, sitting on my lawn mower the other afternoon. The sharp prick I had felt was a knife-sharp slender piece of cane.

It had red on the end of it, and when I reached around to feel where it had touched me, my fingers came away blood-smeared. Bleeding is one thing I do really well; always have. I could already see the obituary:

“Author stabbed to death on lawn mower by unknown assailant: Neighbor noticed Neill’s mower, still running, in roadside ditch, with deceased writer still in the saddle and a bloody hole in his back.”

Well, turned out it didn’t go in that deep, since I had just shifted to forward as I came in contact with the sharp piece of cane. But after I finished mowing, I went to my truck for a cane knife (machete) and spent a few minutes whacking off other sharp pieces around that little canebrake.  

Ever see a riding mower with a rear-view mirror on it?