Long live the King

I can see a brown dot on a distant clearing. If I squint and tilt my head, I reckon I can see it moving. Yes! Yes, it is! The brown dot is moving along the top of the clearing. No binoculars, I haul my camera out and point it in the direction of the dot, then zoom up the magnification and snap a photo.

At home I download the camera chip onto my computer and then zoom once more. The magnified brown dot is a deer – a stag. He appears to be heavy in the neck and with long white-tipped tines atop his low-slung head. The Roar is only a month away and I reckon he’s already stomping around establishing a rut pad and working the resident hinds.

I’m at the same vantage point a month later and sure enough, the stag is back patrolling the top of the clearing. Better still there’s another stag, unseen, in the pine basin below him and that stag is roaring with all his might. What a din!

Through my camera lens I ascertain the ridgetop stag is not extending his head nor opening his mouth as the deep roars echo across the valley.

So, I ask the question, in my head, not aloud, “is average-antlered ridgetop stag the ‘King of the Ring’ with a satellite stag bellowing in frustration below? Or is the rowdy hidden stag the King and ridgetop stag the agitated satellite?”

There is only one way to find out and that is to get in there and eyeball the pair of them.

That evening, as a light rain falls and a gentle hint of breeze caresses the forest canopy, I don my hunting gear. With rifle in hand and a building sense of anticipation I venture quietly into the trees and merge with the natural world.

That breeze so quiet and gentle, it is not my friend. As the rain increases in intensity and saturates my hair, I feel the cool breath of it drawing the heat from my scalp. I navigate accordingly, preventing my human scent from pre-announcing my existence.

Above me I hear the faintest rustle, an animal, tentative, moves through the trees. I cannot see it. The forest is too dense, the light too poor. I glide silently on, ever watchful, but the sound of antler on wire alerts me to the fact the unseen animal was a stag and has moved away from me.

I approach the clearing from below, cool breeze descending, rain easing, heart rate red-lining on the rev counter. Nothing is there.

From my left, silent and determined, a young stag chases a hind and fawn. They come so close I can hear his breathing and smell his eau de cologne. They stopped above me, a single isolated pine tree between us. I watched their legs, the hind’s mouth as she pauses to feed, and I see the fawn distressed and anxious. There is a short guttural roar from back the way I’d come, and the young stag hurries the hind back into cover.

The other stag is coming this way. With every step he grunts – urgghh – urgghh – urggh. Not roaring, not barking, just short, annoyed grunts. I glimpse him between trees but cannot shoot. I crouch down, brace myself and wait.

Urggh-urggh-urggh – he’s coming directly towards me picking up pace as he smells his hind has male company. He stops behind the isolated tree, roars like a lion and makes my heart rate spike clean off the rev-counter. Then he’s head down, antlers clattering through the lower branches of the tree, and I lean into my little rifle and shoot clean into his brisket.

The stag leaps forward in surprise, two big bounds and we’re looking into each other’s eyes. I’m cowering cowardly as he side-stepped me. Another zig, then a zag and he’d gone. Phew!

I track the big prints in the pine needles. They don’t stop. There is no blood.

I circle in increasingly big loops. There are no slide marks. There is no carcass.

Did I miss? At that range – how could I miss?

A roar echoes from above me. Surely not!

Tucked just out of sight at the top of the clearing, the stag roars lustily. I shuffle ever closer, whiskers twitching like a timid little mouse. I see antler tips, long and white. Two V’ed forks of ivory are facing towards me. I can sneak no closer without being seen.

Time to bring out some dirty tricks – hind calls, the cervine equivalent to feminine persuasion!

I drop to me knee, ready my rifle and make like a girl – a girl deer – a beautiful girl deer ready for some lovin’.

The twin forks rock from side to side. The big fella had been lying down but now he’s rising to his feet. He walks a couple of strides towards me, curious, hopeful. He’s eyeballing the crumpled pile of wet clothing with twitching whiskers and a long silver protrusion when a teeny tiny projectile enters his throat and exits his nape.

On closer inspection I note this old warrior is hollow-gutted, battle-scarred and physically spent. I am relieved he knew no hint of his ultimate demise. He had defended his prime spot for a month from all comers. He had probably done the same thing every Roar for years. Now he won’t ever have to fight a losing fight to a younger, fitter foe, nor will he fade into oblivion after going into a winter so thin and tired. Farewell old King and long may your genes continue.

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