THE STAG HUNT
Jonah and Misty, a middle aged couple, had been driving since early that morning in the direction of the village they wanted to visit before heading off for lunch. It was a hot, sticky day and all they wanted to do was to get to their destination as quickly as possible. They were travelling along a quiet country road in Somerset, when all of a sudden they were no longer on the empty road, but had become immersed in a long line of traffic that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Misty turned her head round to see whether or not there was anything behind them, and, not to her surprise, there was a rapidly forming line behind them. There was no way out. The traffic had stopped. The irritated drivers began honking their horns. Some of them got out a picnic basket and started eating. Jonah and Misty felt awful, they hadn't been well since they had set out for their holiday a week before.
There was the sound of horses' hooves and a couple of dogs coming from the heavily wooded side of the road. A beautiful red stag, its eyes wide open in fear, took a well calculated leap, and literally flew over the car that was just ahead of Jonah and Misty. As soon as the stag's hooves touched the ground, it galloped off across the field and into safety. It had happened so quickly, nobody saw exactly where it had disappeared to. The hunters had had no time even to dismount and take aim with their powerful rifles. The hunters and their dogs were shouted at for being so disgusting, hunting such a fine animal. The hunting party turned round to where they had come from, and rode off in that direction. They wondered whether they would feature in an anti-hunting article in the local newspaper. The sighting of the stag had come from an anonymous tip-off.
The occupants in the trapped cars saw that the vehicles far ahead of them began to move slowly forward. Jonah and Misty felt relief when they started to move, it didn't matter how slow it was, as long as they were moving. Those who had decided to have a picnic, got back into their cars and continued towards their destinations. Jonah and Misty drank from bottles of water that had started out nearly frozen but by midday were tepid, but it was better than nothing. The line of cars moved faster and faster till it was clear what had caused the hold up. The road they were on had been narrowed down to a single lane functioning. The other lane was being repaired and the whole road was being widened. When they eventually left the road-works, all the traffic entered a four lane highway, and sped off to wherever they wanted to go.
The hunters were not locals but came from far away, in order to take part in what was a forbidden sport - the stag hunt. The small hotel on the moor, Travellers' Rest, was the starting out point for the men, their dogs, and their horseboxes. On the Friday afternoon, those who wished to take part began arriving. They arrived with their hunting clothes covered in strong plastic bags which served a double purpose, and those were: that no one should be able to see what was inside, and to protect the clothes from dust and dirt. The boots were high and black and heavy. There were six or seven men, and one woman.
The owner of the hotel, a Mrs Martin, who was discreet both in appearance and behaviour, preferred not to get involved with her guests' activities outside the hotel and turned a blind eye to the hunting clothes and the conversations she couldn't help but overhear. Mrs Martin was lucky, in that the hotel was out of the way on the edge of the moor, and therefore was not a place where she would get any of the anti-hunting brigades.
The stag galloped on and on, till it was unable to go any further. Its chest was aching and it was in a very high state of nervous tension. Some men came out from the trees and undergrowth, and after a bit of a tussle got the nervous animal into a horsebox and drove off with it, to a place where animals that were being hunted, were rescued and kept in safety. Even though the reservation for the deer was large, it was not defined as such on any maps. It was owned by a group who had bought it for exactly that reason, so that the deer would be able to live out their lives in peace and tranquillity. How the stag had got over to the other side of the road was a mystery to the people who looked after them.
The group of hunters made their forlorn way back to the hotel. Nothing about the hunt had turned out the way it should have done. Mackenzie and Clifford felt the stag had humiliated them by being able to jump so high and wide over the line of cars. The dogs had gone berserk and were very nervous after their quarry had disappeared from view. There had been a time when a hunt had been a regular thing to practise, but as hunting had been outlawed, it had become a thing of daring to carry out. There was always the possibility of the hunters being surprised by a group of Wellington-booted individuals barring their way across fields or setting up traps to prevent the hounds and horses from passing through to follow the animal to its hideout. The men who formed that hunting party were not young bloods, in fact not one was under fifty. They had all seen better days, in both their normal and their hunting lives. In order to avoid controversy, no one wore the hunting pink, but the black jacket which was less likely to attract attention. Mackenzie, who was tall and distinguished, went up to his room after saying to his friends that he would see them for a drink before lunch. He was feeling that it was not quite up to what he had envisaged, as a weekend to reunite some of his old cronies and to be out in the open air.
Deirdre Deacon was the only woman in their group. She had always thought of herself as one of the boys, when in fact she was rather feminine. Her husband was a boring old thing, that she was fond of in her own quiet way. She had the urge to go on the hunt, even though it didn't interest her as much as it would have done when she was thirty years younger. Clifford, who had once been one of her pretenders, had rung her up asking her if she was at all interested in going on another hunt. Deirdre and her husband had had no plans for that weekend, so she had accepted gracefully. It might be fun to see how everyone looked after all the years that had passed. The idea of hunting a stag was not one that appealed to her, but seeing the men again was.
After bidding the others a 'see you later', Deirdre went up to her room, undressed and got into the shower. All the time her head was buzzing with questions and in puzzlement. She cast her mind back to the morning, when they had all been mounted, and then someone had informed them about the stag that had been sighted in the nearby woods. They had all started off in search of the stag, and the dogs were getting more and more excited on smelling their prey. The red coat of the stag had been its giveaway, and they dismounted and readied their rifles to kill. That was what troubled Deirdre, she still didn't understand the reason behind the hunt.
In retrospect, it seemed as if the stag had known what it was going to do all along. Deirdre smiled to herself at that thought. Supposing, just supposing, the stag had taken the rise out of them all, to make them look silly - and they must have looked silly, especially when it jumped over the line of cars and tore off into the distance, leaving the hunters' and dogs' eyes bulging in sheer disbelief at what they had experienced. There was no way they could have gone after the stag, and the animal had known it. Deirdre relaxed on the bed and shut her eyes to have a nap before lunch.
Mrs Martin was busy giving orders to the kitchen workers on how to prepare the different dishes she wanted for the Sunday lunch. The business she ran was a restaurant as well as a pub and hotel. She didn't need any extra business from people like the hunters, who would most likely bring trouble with them if anyone discovered they were staying under her roof. Luckily, they wore normal clothes except when they were on the hunt.
Mackenzie was also on the bed in his room, and was wondering what had gone wrong just a short time before. He had been very impressed by the stag's leap over the traffic, and decided to go by car to the opposite side of the road from where they had been thwarted by the stag. Clifford, who had been a friend of Mackenzie's for many years, was thinking along the same lines, that it would be of interest to see where the stag had gone to.
Crispin and some of the other members of the group, were in the bar drowning their frustration in anything that had a proof label on the bottle. By lunch time, they had consumed enough alcohol for all the guests in the hotel.
"Look, Travellers' Rest. This place looks OK for lunch, then we can be on our way again. I'd prefer it if we were well out of here as soon as we've eaten our fill," Jonah said to Misty.
"What do you make of that stag and those hunters this morning?" Misty asked Jonah.
"The people who participate in that kind of activity must be bored out of their minds. It just isn't an attractive thing to do."
Misty sat back and thought of the stag and what had made it leap so magnificently over the cars, when it might possibly have killed itself.
Jonah parked the car in the hotel car park, and they walked in. There was no indication of how old the hotel was, but it was the genuine thing. Although it wasn't cold outside, a small log fire was burning in a grate which was surrounded by chairs, and in the centre was a table for holding drinks. A waiter went up to them, "Good morning. Are you intending to lunch here?"
"Yes, we are, but we'd like a drink first, please," Jonah said.
The waiter gave them a menu each and went off to reserve a table for two and get their drinks.
While they were waiting, more and more visitors entered the hotel and there seemed to be only one subject of conversation and that was, of course, the stag's leap over the road.
"That must have been Rufus. He's often crossing over to this side of the road. Although I must admit, I thought he had gone back to his place of safety with the other deer," an elderly man said.
"Perhaps he got out and decided to give the hunters a good run for their money," another elderly one said.
Jonah and Misty kept silent, and listened to the comments that were flying around.
"I hope none of those hunters come here for lunch and hear such comments, or they'll feel more humiliated than ever," Jonah said.
"Well, let's finish up and get on our way, I've had enough of this place for one morning. You'd never believe such things are still happening. I'll never forget the look of fear in its eyes as it leaped over the cars. Makes you wonder how those men with their guns would have reacted if it had been them," declared Misty.
Mackenzie and Clifford went down to lunch together. The rest of their group had either eaten or were still upstairs in their rooms, resting. There was no sign of Deirdre. They spoke to Mrs Martin, "Has Mrs Deacon had lunch?" Mackenzie asked.
"That's the lady who's in your group, isn't it?" Mrs Martin responded.
"Yes, it is. Have you seen her at all?" Clifford asked.
"Well, to tell you the truth, no, I haven't. Just a moment and I'll give her a ring. Meanwhile, you could go into the restaurant and order your lunch, after all, it's been paid for in your booking and some of your associates have already eaten."
Mrs Martin rang Deirdre's room. 'That's odd, there's no reply, and yet I'm sure she hasn't come down,' Mrs Martin thought, and called the receptionist, "Come with me to Mrs Deacon's room, please. She isn't answering the phone."
In the restaurant Mackenzie and Clifford began to order lunch. Mrs Martin went up in the lift to the floor where Deirdre's room was located. Mrs Martin knocked on the door. There was no reply.
"I hate doing this. After all, the guests should be able to expect a certain amount of privacy. Well, come on then," Mrs Martin opened the door to Deirdre's room with the master key. The room was in darkness.
"Mrs Deacon, are you awake? We're sorry to disturb you, but you haven't come down to lunch and your friends are worried about you."
The receptionist pulled back the curtains and the two women stared at Deirdre's inert body on the bed.
"She's dead, isn't she?" Mrs Martin asked the receptionist.
"Yes, she most certainly is," the receptionist said.
"We'd better ring for an ambulance. Do you think the police should be told?" asked Mrs Martin.
"The hospital will inform the police if the death is unnatural. We'd better tell her companions," the receptionist said.
The two women left the room, locking the door firmly behind them.
Mrs Martin thought she would wait till Mackenzie and Clifford had eaten, before telling them about Deirdre's death.
Jonah and Misty, their lunch over, paid up, and went out to the car park, got into the car and drove off. Mackenzie and Clifford were busy eating what was a delicious lunch. Pity it would be spoilt by being informed of Deirdre's demise.
The ambulance arrived at the hotel, and Mrs Martin related to Mackenzie and Clifford how she and the receptionist had found Mrs Deacon lying on her bed - dead. The two old friends felt very sad about her death. They had all known each other since they were young.
"I'm off now, because I'd like to know where that stag went to, when it shot off over the car," Mackenzie said to Clifford.
"I'd also like to know where the stag had come from. What about Deirdre, what are you going to tell the others?"
"I shan't tell them. It's quite unnecessary for them to know. Some of them have already left, so I'll ring them or send them a message informing them of Deirdre's death. In the meantime, I'm going to drive over to the other side of the road. Coming with me?"
"Yes, of course, even if it means getting nowhere as regards the stag's whereabouts," Clifford replied.
The two men walked out to their four-wheeled vehicles and drove off in the direction of the crossroads.
At the crossroads they turned left and drove up a narrow country road, which was too narrow for two vehicles to pass. As they drove on, Mackenzie leading the way as he had always done, the landscape became woodland. The open field that the stag had run across came to an end where the woodland began. They drove on and on, till Mackenzie made a signal to Clifford that he was going to stop driving.
They got out of their vehicles, and they took out their binoculars and looked into the woods. They saw that there was a 'PRIVATE PROPERTY' sign on the fence.
"We're sure to meet up with antagonism if we try to get in. What do you say to paying a visit to whoever is in charge?" Mackenzie said to Clifford.
"Sounds fine to me," Clifford said to his old friend.
They went up to a wooden gate in the fence, and saw an armed man coming towards them. He wasn't the hail-fellow-well-met kind of person, so they both felt rather apprehensive.
"This wood is private property," the hostile man said.
"We know. We saw the notice. We wondered whether or not you'd seen a red stag here this morning. It leaped over the road down below and disappeared up here," Mackenzie said.
"What is it that I can see amongst those trees?" Clifford asked.
"Nothing, there's nothing there. The trees cast changing shadows at times, and anyone not used to them can imagine things that aren't there."
"Really, I find that a little hard to believe," Clifford said.
"You'd best be off, before I have to force you off," the man warned them.
"Come on, let's leave. There's nothing to be done here," Mackenzie said to Clifford.
The two hunters got back into their vehicles and drove off, unaware that they had just missed seeing a herd of deer that was gazing at them through the trees.
The hostile man went back into the woods and stroked the stag that had led Mackenzie and his friends on a merry chase.
"You're not to do that again, or one day you might just get yourself killed. You're lucky we're moving you all tonight to higher ground where you ought to be safer, for a few months at least."
The stag, majestic in his stance, seemed to understand what the man was saying to him.
Jonah and Misty had to stay in another inn for the night.
Mackenzie, Clifford, and some of the other old friends who had attended the hunt, were all present when Deirdre was cremated a couple of weeks later. The autopsy stated that she had suffered a great shock which had, in its turn, led to a heart attack. Her husband also attended the funeral, but never understood why she had gone to the West Country just to gallop after a stag.
As far as the stags and the other members of the deer family that lived well protected were concerned, they were growing in numbers - much to the frustration of those who wanted to chase after them on horses, with guns.