True Montana Stories


       The Keeper


        War of the Whirl

        Small Pox


A True Montana Story Told by Gene Mackin

An eternity of blue filtered through the rustle of pine needles and drew me awake. As I rolled onto my side, the rotating blades of the Windcharger and the lattice of its tower bisected the cloudless sky. I blinked my swollen eyes and searched along the ground to dislodge the lump under my ribs. The moment my fingers touched the catcher's mitt, anger washed through me and tears refilled my eyes. I jerked hard and flung the mitt far down the hill.

I clenched my eyes closed and willed them dry. At eighteen, I can't afford tears. My father and sisters depend on me now. The officer in the green sedan; the officer in the uniform crumpled and sweat-soaked from the long drive out of Miles City; the Army officer with condolences and a folded flag--He forever changed our lives today. I will inherit this measly seven-section ranch; I will tend the herds and put up the hay; I will support the whole damn outfit by drilling wells and threshing other farmer's crops. I will be just like the flinty Irishman, Levi Mackin.

I scrambled down the hill to get the glove. Instinctively, I put in my hand and turned it away ready for the pitch that doesn’t come. The worn leather feels comforting on my hand and against my chest. But. why am I dragging this damn thing around like a teddy bear?

The bum lambs down in the pen are bleating for attention. Must be hungry. Dad has gone off to break the news to my older sisters Dorothy, Rose, Marie, and Marguerite. My youngest sister, Trenie, is nowhere in sight. The lambs are hers.  She's forgotten them.  Poor kid.

I walked to the pen and put the mitt on top a fence post. All of Trenie's lambs are named after baseball heroes: Gisepi, Alexander, Dizzy Dean, Daffy Dean, and Salty Parker. I threw in half a bale of hay. That should bring Mickey Cochrane, her pet deer. But, the deer was over in the corral commiserating with the cull cows that were ready to go to market.

I started out looking for Trenie but turned back to get the mitt. Baseball is the one thing that always kept our family going through good times and bad. Even when we were caught in the middle of the battling stockmen. No cattleman or sheep herder could stomach our outfit. We raised both sheep and cattle. But nothing brought the families together like a Sunday afternoon game of baseball. No one ever let a little range war interfere with their favorite sport.

The Mackin's went to every game within forty miles of Volberg. The only one we missed was due to an outbreak of diphtheria. Marguerite was exposed while babysitting and the doctor thought we would infect the whole county. We were quarantined and would have been arrested if we'd showed at the game.

Gardner, my brother who everyone called Mac, played right field. He’s ten years older than me. The two of us finished off most days by pitching a few balls. I was a half way decent catcher by the time I was five. Didn't even have a mitt then. We were just lucky to own a threadbare ball.

I was five in 1932--a year to remember. Each little prairie community fielded a ball team. The teams played scheduled games while the crops grew. Then they topped it off with a championship playoff after the crops were in. The teams were named after the towns: Sonnette, Broadus, Coalwood, Powderville, Mizpah, Olive, and Doyle Creek. But, Mac played for a team that wasn't named for a town; these sluggers proudly proclaimed themselves the Outcasts because that’s what they were.

Hugo and Alex Roots started the Outcasts. They had played with Coalwood, but that year the team filled out the roster with men and boys from just two families. Feeling unwanted, they gathered up a team from the families along Pumpkin Creek. The Powder River League welcomed them with the thought that the rag-tag Outcasts could provide some practice games and comic relief for the veteran teams.

The Outcasts needed a home field so they pitched in with hoes and shovels to clear a diamond on a sage brush flat a mile below Loesch school. I drug sage brush into a pile down behind home plate and the team used it to make a fire to warm the batter's hands if a Sunday afternoon turned chilly.

Chalk lines at the edge of the field marked the foul lines and home run boundary. After adding a chicken wire backstop, bases, and benches for the teams, it was time to play ball.

Equipment was scarce. Most of the Outcasts didn't even have ball gloves. They either used their work gloves or the visiting team generously left their gloves in the field when they went in to bat.

The Broadus team in crisp, white uniforms played just as well on the rough, sagebrush flat as they did at home. The Outcasts in tee shirts and jeans looked inexperienced on the Broadus field but proud and competent in the sage brush.

I've studied the tattered news clips from the Powder River Examiner so many times over the years that I've got them memorized. One headline read, "WINS OUT IN 9TH INNING." The article said, "Coalwood took a close game from the Outcasts at the Outcast field with the score 13 to 12."

That was a grudge game with the team that booted the Roots. My sisters and I drove to the field. Could have walked from home but there were no bleachers for the crowd. People sat in or on their cars, depending on the wind and the sun. But I usually squatted in the dust along the base lines waiting for my chance to retrieve foul balls. Eastern Montana games were seldom called for rain. If they called them for dust, they would have rarely played.

The Cain's were there too. With 15 kids, they're a crowd in themselves. I only knew the younger ones-- Shorty, Fatso, Bullet, Sal, Tutor, Tat, and Buster. I always had to look out for Buster. He was dead set on getting every foul ball even if he had to fight someone for it. He was always big enough to take a ball away from me, but I never let him take a ball from me without giving him something to remember me by.

The crowd supplied the umpires so you could count on them to favor one team or the other. There were some outlandish calls. Hotheads in the crowd often argued the calls behind the line of cars. This provided a bloody side show for many a close game.

Broadus, as usual, had a winning streak. They won more games that season than any other team. The Powder River Examiner crowed their success. I remember the baseball stories taking up a whole column on page one and continuing on page six. You could relive every detail of the game just reading it.

I'll never forget the most exciting game of the regular season. It took place on the first Sunday of September. I used to be able to recite the whole article by heart. Dad and Mac would listen intently then roar with laughter when I was finished. I don't know if I can do it now. Let's see:


It took 15 innings to decide the Broadus-Outcast contest last Sunday at the Outcast diamond. Up to the last half of the ninth inning the Broadus team was going along nicely with a lead of 6 to 3, but in the ninth a series of errors let in three runs and the score was tied.

Heck, I think I've forgotten some of it.

Cain singled. Alex Roots hit to Squires who tossed to Holt to put out Cain. Holt threw to first for a double but threw wild and Roots was safe. Squires tossed out Pikkula. An error let Reed on and Alex Roots scored. George and Hugo Roots got by the error route. Pinch hitter Graham delivered a blow and Reed and George romped home. Squires tossed out Gustafson.

Oh well, that’s the best I can remember. Broadus finally won in the 15th inning anyway. The score was 10 to 6 but the stage was set for the play offs. Broadus had won the most season games by a large margin; but, to everyone's shock, the Outcasts turned out to be the runner-ups.

The first Sunday of October saw us all in Broadus for game one. I'm sure Pumpkin Creek farmsteads were as deserted as ghost towns. The Outcasts didn't disappoint us. They took the first game 11 to 9.

The Mackin's had came ready for a party. My sisters brought lemonade and an ice cream maker. We had churned and yelled all through the game. The Outcasts gathered round to celebrate the victory and taste the ice cream. The ice cream felt good on my raw throat. Even the folks from Broadus came by to congratulate the winning team. But, as they left, they vowed that our winning streak would be very short indeed.

Two weeks later, most of Broadus was on Pumpkin Creek. Four hundred people ringed the Loesch field. As predicted, this day went to Broadus. The Outcasts were routed 15 to 6. I remember the Examiner headlines that week proclaimed the play offs the "little world series."

The deciding game was played in Broadus on the first Sunday in November. The game was hard fought throughout. Broadus would score then the Outcasts would score. Finally it was the bottom of the ninth, with the Outcasts 13 to Broadus' 10 and Broadus at bat.

I recall that the unaccustomed November heat was heightened by the excitement of the crowd. Everyone felt it. A fight broke out among the spectators, but no one paid them any mind. The brawlers quickly gave it up and returned covered in sweat. There was a frenzy of cheering and booing with every play. The ball bounced to Mac in the outfield and the runner was safe at first. It was all in the hands of the Outcast pitcher, Al Pikkula, and he proceeded to load the bases with runners! Broadus fans were going wild, congratulating each other on a great season, and hooting at their country cousins.

We were frozen with a combination of dread and hope. Al looked over at us, grimaced and dropped his eyes. He made a move as if to reach down for a handful of dirt. The runner on third smelled an easy win and took off for home plate. Yes, Al was reaching but reaching down inside himself to pull out some hidden reserve. It was all a ploy to draw the steal and Al easily tossed the ball to the catcher to tag the runner out. Then, amazingly, Al struck out the next batter. I went from sister to sister hugging each one. When I got back to Dad, he was actually jumping up and down--so we joined arms and did a little Irish jig. People all around laughed and clapped a beat for us.

The ump yelled, "Batter up" to quiet the racket. We responded with eerie silence. I crossed all my fingers and even tried to cross my toes. The Broadus batter sliced the air several times with determined practice swings. Al pitched him a fast ball. He swung with everything he had and connected only to foul off over the backstop. Strike one. I didn't chase the ball, no one did, we were riveted in the moment.

Al bent over and squinted at his catcher. Somehow in this simple exchange, intentions were transmitted and Al brazenly pitched another fast ball to the strike zone. The bat connected. It was a fly ball to the outfield. Mac was running. Everyone was on their feet. Get it! Get it! Get it! But the ball dropped to the ground just outside the foul line with Mac one step behind. Strike two!

How can I describe the next few moments. Heartbreak for what could have been Mac's winning play. Pride for the team that was playing beyond everyone's expectations. Anxiety for the batter who will either win or loss the game. And among all these jumbled feelings, astonishment at Al's cunning under pressure.

The batter jogged back to home plate and picked up his bat as Mac heaved the ball back to Al. Now Al's only task is to get the ball past the strike zone one more time--beyond this batter who has proven he can hit. As Al winds up for the pitch, it's as if everything other than the catcher's mitt vanishes from the field. I hold my breath and watch the ball streak just below the hurling bat and find it's way safely into the soft leather pocket. "Strike three!" radiates in the air over the roaring crowd.

It all came down to a catcher's mitt and deep in the leather, victory was snatched from defeat. I gaze into my own mitt and know I'll never see Mac again. The officer's dreadful words suddenly are clear.

"Lt. Mackin's Black Widow night-fighter plane went down over Hankow, China on June 15. The pilots from Chennault's Flying Tigers squadron reported no one could have survived the crash. I'm sorry but there is little chance that the army will be able to locate the wreckage and bring his body home."

The ache in my heart telegraphed throughout my body and consumed my anger. I dropped to my knees and burrow my face into the mitt--Mac's catchers mitt. The day he left for the war, he told me to take care of it until he returned. Now it's all that remains of my brother. This mitt and memories of the Outcasts of Pumpkin Creek.

Published in Rural Montana  Vol. #37, #8 in April 1990

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