The Great Buffalo Hunt

bison-leif-lodahl-01On 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.