On a cold, clear January day in 1961, George, our druggist, received a letter from the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish. He set it down on the soda counter and took a stool beside it.
“You okay?” Betty asked. She was the college kid who clerked for George.
“Yeah,” he said, not taking his eyes off the envelop.
“Is it something bad?” she asked.
“Not at all,” he replied in a soft voice, “I think I just won the lottery.”
The drugstore regulars crowded around. “How much did you win?” they wanted to know.
He sliced open the envelop, blew into it and slid the document out onto the counter.
“It’s not that kind of lottery,” he told them, “I won a permit to shoot a buffalo.”
The eyes of the regulars got as big as balloons.
Shoot a buffalo! Holy Moly!
Only Betty thought to ask, “Why?”
“That’s the dumbest question I ever heard,” one of the old regulars said.
But George wanted to explain. He struggled for words. There were so many things he had to explain first. He wanted to confess how trapped he felt trying keeping his father’s drugstore alive in a dying neighborhood.
He wanted to tell somebody, anybody, what it is like to live with all the dark secrets of everyone you know.
He could hardly explain these things to himself, so how could he explain what it meant to step away from everything that held him down and do something as dangerous and thrilling as hunting buffalo? If he couldn’t find the words himself, what could he say to Betty, a girl who had never tasted the kind of disappointment that he had?
She just wouldn’t get it.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to explain anything because one of his regulars shouted, “It’s for the meat, kid.”
And that was that.
Two weeks later, George reported to the ranger station in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park outside of Medora, North Dakota. The check-in process consisted of being ignored for a very long time until an indifferent young ranger escorted him out to a road-safety red snow tractor that had a blinking yellow light on the top of the cab.
Under a stunning blue sky, the vehicle tracked effortlessly for half an hour over endless soft hills that to the untrained eye appeared to be nothing but snow drifts themselves.
As the buffalo herd came into view, George grew anxious.
He suggested turning off the blinking light so as not to raise suspicion in the herd and offered the additional advice of approaching from a downwind ravine where he could exploit the cover to maneuver in close.
The ranger merely regarded George in the same manner he regarded the dead flies swirling around the defrost vent on the dashboard.
He tracked the vehicle in a long slow arc around one edge of the herd before turning in and threading his way among the immobile bison. The buffalo never lifted their noses out of the snow; they appeared to regard the ranger’s vehicle in much the same manner as the ranger regarded George.
Finally the vehicle crunched to a stop near a dark shape that was contently munching on frozen weeds. The ranger swung out of the cab and approached the buffalo. He brushed the snow off its head then nonchalantly stapled a long red paper tag to the bull’s left ear.
He then turned to George and said… “Shoot it.”
This was not what George had in mind.
The ranger shuffled his feet in the cold then with an edge in his voice repeated, “Shoot it.”
The bull never looked up.
George did as he was told and the buffalo rolled over. The ranger backed the vehicle up, played out some steel cable, cinched it around one leg and winched the carcass onto the bed of the tractor.
After “the hunt”, George was obliged to pay a local butcher a small fortune to process and ship the meat back home to Saint Paul. Minnesota.
For a few days, he gleefully doled out rump roasts, steaks and buffalo burgers until someone actually tried to serve them for supper. That’s when word got out that George had shot a tough old bull that tasted worse than a hockey puck.
Suddenly there were no takers, except for one: Betty. George gave her the last roast. She accepted it graciously and smiled a sweet sad smile as she left that night.
When she was gone, George sat alone at his desk to do the books and daydream.
He dreamed about what could have been, what should have been, what could be and for a while he even tried to convince himself that maybe, just maybe, Betty might be the someone who could understand.
35 thoughts on “The Great Buffalo Hunt”
Well, you certainly stirred the pot of life with this one. 🙂 I’ll still be thinking on it tomorrow which I know is the purpose.
Well, I’ve been thinking about it for years, so I guess that is fair. 🙂
It is all gone now, the neighborhood is gentrified, everyone has either moved on or died. It is someplace else these days. I don’t begrudge that to the people who live there. I only hope that they find what we once had.
Disappointment on so many levels, captured so well, Greg.
This was a very good story! Sad, but good…. Some dreams are never meant to be realized.
Sometimes the saddest stories are the best. I prefer humor, but often the best humor is the saddest.
Hunts are no longer hunts and the Park Service needs to thin out the old and sick.
I am not sure what their policy is these days because now, buffalo are much more common.
Ah dreams… they don’t always turn out the way we hope. I enjoyed that one.
Eventually, we learn that the more modest the dream, the more likely it is to turn out as we hoped.
I understand there are times when the herd needs to be culled, but this was fairly upsetting. You did a wonderful job of making the scene seem real; I just hope that it wasn’t. Of course, I’ve never thought of bison in quite the same way since I met this fellow at close range. I still have a hank of hair from him tied up in a ribbon on a shelf, and I’ve never forgotten that moment when it seemed we truly saw one another. I wish George could have seen him, too.
I was out for a walk along the road in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park when I turned around and saw a buffalo just a few feet behind me. I was surprised that something that big could be that quiet. He or she just walk right by me
Boy talk about the fine print…. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Secondhand Lions, but it kind of reminded me of a scene in it when they want to do a lion hunt, but they get a lion that is a sick zoo cast off and won’t get out of its crate.
It is one of my favorite films.
Seriously?! Me too!!!
Poignant and sigh inducing story. Thanks.
You are welcome. 🙂
Jaw-droppingly good writing, Greg.
Thanks John, coming from you that is quite a compliment. 🙂 🙂
Well deserved. Stunning piece.
That was so sad. An allegory of the world today perhaps?
It could be an allegory, especially for all the dying prairie towns. Almost Iowa is a ghost town. One of many.
This was wonderfully sadness inducing – I was thinking sad for George and not the buffalo. “The check-in process consisted of being ignored for a very long time ” – applies to much in our lives!
Sometimes it’s not a good thing to win the lottery…and then along comes Betty.
Bitter and sweet, a fine write! ❤
I keep telling my wife that we need to win the lottery and she keeps telling me that we have to buy tickets first to win. It’s when I tell her that I am not sure I want to spend the money without knowing the outcome. So it goes…
I have that problem with the dating pool, myself…
Good one! Made me chuckle!!Yep, Betty, a dreamer at her age, would say she got it, not knowing what her life will be like. She’d say that even though she has no real sense of what George went through. 📚 Christine
Sometimes it is better to move on into the future rather than trying to explain the past.
Yep, you get into the “weeds” in the past! Better not to go there! 🎶📚
Well, the permit did state that he could SHOOT a buffalo, not hunt one. It’s all in the semantics in government.
He should come to Wisconsin and shoot deer – our season lasts longer, doesn’t involve park rangers, and is usually accompanied by lots of beer and tall tales.
I have a brother who lives behind the Cheddar Curtain in Pepin. He had the following conversation with his neighbor.
“Where have you been?”
“I just spent two weeks in the hospital in Rochester (Mayo Clinic)”
“While driving down Hwy 35 (Mississippi River Road), an oncoming car hit a deer and the deer went through my windshield. In short, I caught 100 lbs of deer in the face, doing 110 mph. They medivaced me to Rochester.”
“Gosh, sorry to hear about that, but I got a question.”
“Did you get the venison?”
As always, be careful what you wish for!
There is an ancient curse that goes like this: “May your dreams come true.”
Leaves me with an interesting sense of what disappointment tastes like. I think she might understand, but will she stay?
The takeaway here is that disappointment tastes like old buffalo. 🙂
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