The cowboys and the cat
Something of a Christmas miracle happened in the North Dakota badlands.
The Wisness family of Keene is a great example of cowboy talent and perseverance. In high school wrestling Levi and Beau were each state champions. They went on to become top bulldoggers, and Levi won the PRCA’s Badlands Circuit steer wrestling title for 2003 and 2004. Chase was tromping on their heels to continue the family legacy until tragedy struck when he was en-route to a wrestling clinic and his friend’s car wrecked, leaving Chase partially paralyzed. Tragedy doubled when Levi was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Ranching communities are close knit, like family. When one hurts, everyone feels the pain. The many friends and neighbors of the Wisness family, some generational, gathered to share the load. Rusty Christopherson was among them.
“Levi and I talked on the phone at least once a week, especially when he was sick and Chase was goin’ through all that,” Rusty recalls. “Most every time he’d ask me about the hounds and the hunting. Then this one day he said, ‘Do ya’ ever think we might get Chase in on a cat to shoot sometime?’”
“I said, ‘With the people that we have around our country who are all anxious to help, we can get it done.’”
Those words were spoken in July 2008, a mere week before Levi Wisness’ deadly illness ended his earthly life.
Time passed, and young Chase learned to cope with his own physical limitations. With the help of a special saddle Levi had built for him in Texas, he got so he could ride a horse. “It’s a pretty good feeling,” the young man who ranches with is father and brother said. “It’s good to be able to be as tall as everyone else.”
According to Dusty Hausauer, he also shows up whenever a neighbor needs help. “He’ll be out there in that wheelchair pushin’ cattle up a chute or helpin’ someone load, with a big grin on his face,” he declares.
Even so, the intervening years did not dim Rusty’s memory of Levi’s wish, nor his determination to fulfill it. Chase Wisness said, “Last year I went out hunting with Rusty. And this is the third or fourth time I was out this year with him. We went out Thanksgiving day on a track, and that cat just kind’a kicked our butt. Rusty was more disappointed every time we didn’t get one, but more than anything I was just grateful to be out there doing it …that’s why they call it hunting,” Chase grins. “Rusty worked his butt off – everybody did that helped. It makes you pretty appreciative for your friends helping you that way, and you just hope someday you can pay them back.”
Then, in a perfect storm of sorts, everything came together, just before Christmas. “Up here in North Dakota they only let us take seven cats after the dog hunting part of the season opens in late November, and time was kind’a running out,” Rusty says. “A lot of people had been watching for cats and sign. Ace Gilman and my girlfriend Hailey Schaper went six or seven miles the day before looking for cats or sign. Things looked good, so a whole bunch – maybe eight or 10 of us – got together and we put Chase on a calf sled and took him into the Badlands. I had my four dogs and Chaston Lee had a couple dogs involved. Dad and them were all out helping, driving around.”
“Everybody just dropped what they were doing,” he explains, “and there were people there on the first hunt that didn’t even know Chase from Adam – a couple of rodeo guys that just came along. Everyone just threw in and picked up and there wasn’t one complaint from people going up and down those hills on their hands and knees, in those cedar pockets and such. And we got Chase almost right up to a shot on a cat – twice – and both times they got away.”
“Wisness is always pretty happy and excited,” Hausauer said. “And he hadn’t been into those areas much since his accident, so he was really enjoying the day. Everyone went with Rusty up and down all that bad stuff trying to get him a shot. His brother Beau had come all the way out from Watford and brought his horse to have him there in case Chase would need to ride to get the shot. There was never a doubt in anybody’s mind that we were gonna get that cat, with Rusty’s dogs and all.”
“When the one cat headed down where we knew Chase couldn’t go, it was him that told Beau to get down there and shoot it,” Rusty recalls. “He was more happy, I think, for his brother than when he got his own shot. And Beau, he said he never thought he’d get to kill a mountain lion!”
“Yeah, Beau used my gun, a 223 Remington I bought a few years ago, to shoot that cat of his,” Chase grins.
“Chase is a big guy, probably 6’4” and weighing 230,” Rusty says. “And you couldn’t wipe the grin off his face, that he was out there hunting. Everybody that was pulling him just kept sweating and grunting and scrambling over the rough places, but nobody said a word about it being tough, until after that second cat got away. Then most of the rest of everybody that had pulled him up and down was kind of bummed out that we let Chase down. But Nathan Shauper said after the cat jumped, ‘If we can get him into there, we can get him in anywhere’. And it was just one of them deals, it wasn’t meant to be that day. It was all really worth it, after all.” The big day was still ahead.
“Dusty and I’d been lookin for tracks that morning early. We’d been hunting the day before too, and then we decided to meet on our place. We’ve got this place the other side of the river, so we were gon’na go look for tracks there. We started probably about three in the morning and drove a lot looking for tracks, but we didn’t have any luck.”
“Then Corey Hugelen found this track on his place, and cut it and had his dogs on it a while. He called Rusty, and he got ahold of us, so we went over there. If it hadn’t been for him we might never have gotten one,” Chase explains.
For Chase, that’s when the crunch really came. “Obviously getting the cat was the bigger leap and a big reward – I think mostly for Rusty and everyone that was helping. It was a pretty awesome experience, and you really appreciate the good friends you got dragging you around to help this happen,” he says.
“I was pretty nervous …I’d never had so many people watchin’ me shoot anything,” he recalls. “I had my 223 Remington that Beau had used to get his cat. I heard Dusty say, ‘Take your time,’ and I took a couple deep breaths and then pulled the trigger. The cat jumped out of the tree and took off, with the dogs chasing it and Rusty asked me ‘Did you get it?’ I said, ‘I think so,’ but I was pretty nervous there for a while.”
“Then in a little bit I said, ‘What happens if you miss one?’”
“Some guy standing back there said, ‘They jump out of the tree and run off, just like that one did.’”
But that one didn’t run far, and the dogs were on its tail so it wasn’t lost. Soon Rusty was packing that cat, to put in Chase’s arms, with the biggest North Dakota grin.
“I was sure glad I didn’t miss him! And I just can’t say enough about the people that helped and everyone that was there,” the grateful hunter emphasizes. “I mean, Rusty, Dusty, Hailey, Abe, Dustin and everyone …Chaston with his dogs, and Corey and the Hugelen’s …I can’t say enough how much I appreciated it.”
Rusty declares, “When Chase ended up getting the last cat of the season for up here in North Dakota – now that’s what I was doing it for! It might not have been the biggest cat, but it’s one we’ll remember forever. And I do really believe maybe Levi was looking down on us and that was his way of giving both of his brothers his last Christmas present. I really do believe thats what kinda happened – it was meant to be.”