All Stories, General Fiction, Historical

The Broomstick Cowboy by Tom Sheehan

In the heart of Chicago’s new butchering center, in a ramshackle apartment in a ramshackle house, a truly destined cowboy was born to a hard-working Scots-born butcher and his wife. The year was 1864 and the Scotsman had just got a job with the newly formed Union Stock Yards. Ralston Condor was a meat cutter, one of many that came with the swelling herds in the yards. Eventually, after 7 years on the job, he’d come home at night and tell his wife and son all the stories he heard during the day, at work, at the tavern on the way home, from friends on the corner … all about the great herds of the west, the cowboys and drovers and ramrods and trail bosses and the Indians along the way as cattle headed for Chicago and the stockyards and the butcher plants. For all those years he longed for the open country again, like the land he had known on the moors of Scotland with Angus cattle, a distinguished and hardy breed.

On a drear Sunday afternoon in 1871, finding a resolution mounting in him, Condor said to his wife, “One day, we are going to get to the heart of this.” His wife did not know what he was actually looking at as he spoke, but would know those simple words all her life, knowing he had made a significant judgment … not what it was, but knowing that it would come to pass, whatever he had meant. The look was on his face.

He had pointed, over the nearest roof, to the stockyards less than a half mile away. The smell was immoveable and steady, and only promised hard work, little money, and fewer chances. She remembered the day, in Scotland, when he said, “Soon we will move from here.” She did not know how far that would be.

Their son Alec, bright as new coins, full of imagination, sociable as an ant or a bee, spent hours riding on a broomstick horse in the dusty road in front of their row house. Older neighbors, laughing heartily, called him The Broomstick Cowboy. The name stuck where it was pinned, firmly in place on young Alec Condor. They saw how much he enjoyed the imaginative ride he was on, the wide country around him, the great herds he was leading, the good friends and staunch companions that rode with him through the terrors of the long trail and, at length as evening drew down upon him and his broomstick horse, the flickering camp fire with his drover companions ready with songs, stories, and their judgments of the day.

It was easy for him to fall asleep, and thus to dream his day all over again.

As all their Chicago stockyard days went on, any and all spare funds went into a tin can hidden in a special place in the floor under a matt. The sum grew with take-in sewing money Mrs. Condor earned, her husband’s winning at cards, plus small gifts from the old country. The two parents were planning for the day they would leave this drear and wretched apartment, the stockyards, all of Chicago … leave them behind forever.

Came the day the decision was made, and the arrangements to head west, into the wide spaces where young Alec , The Broomstick Cowboy, one day would get his chance to become what he played at, what he dreamed about, that daunting rider on a daunting horse and nothing but wide prairie around him.

By chance meetings, directions, talk with people met on the way, the family ended up on a wagon train in Independence, Missouri, headed for the land of promise in Texas, cow country as far as one could see in every day of travel.

The journey was long and arduous at all points, but proved to be a veritable classroom. Too long a meat cutter, a butcher, Condor, smart as he possibly could be, studied everything about them as they moved … the people, the animals, and the vegetation. He saw, he absorbed, he remembered. He asked innumerable questions of innumerable tradesmen and bystanders, those he observed to be alert, industrious, proficient at their task at hand. And decisions came of his observations, his study of the land, of perennial opportunities.

Raising cattle for the Chicago market was his goal, for the most concentrated activity he saw on the way was the movement of cattle heading back eventually to the place he had left, Chicago and the railroad stockyards and butcheries, and the eastern markets.

Condor mixed well in social situations, his gutsy Highland dialect welcomed, or disdained by newly met people, making inroads possible or calling upon his fortitude and ability at handling odds head on.

So it was in one chance encounter, when he detected the Highlands dialect coming from a man in the midst of an argument that seemed to threaten the lone man. Condor jumped in to give his help.

The unknown Highlander was in a loud argument with three men who seemed to dwarf him considerably, but Condor’s intrusion evened matters immediately … his long-worked butcher’s arms exhibited solid muscle and his demeanor as forward as a bayonet showed he had no fear.

“Aye, Laddie,” Condor said, as he thrust his way into the center of the discussion, “Are you in need of assistance?” His huge arm looped around the stranger’s neck like a noose, and his presence was an immediate difference.

“Oh, Laddie,” the stranger said, “these men have a high dislike for Scottish Angus cattle. No horns to fight off their adversaries. Nothing like the Texas Longhorns they dwell upon.”

“Well, now,” Condor said, in his purest Highland voice, “I have studied every herd on all the trails I’ve come across, and that includes every cow I’ve seen. There is nothing these cattle need any more than one good Red Angus Bull to even matters for them, to make them the choice of meat cutters from here to the rail yards in Chicago and all the way to the finest restaurants in New York and other points east where all the best meat goes.”

To settle matters fully, Condor, with an arm around the Scottish stranger, grasped one of the arguing men about the arm and sank his thumb so deeply into muscle that the man flinched visibly. “We’ll let these gentlemen go on their way while we see if we have mutual acquaintances in the old land.”

One of the other men, a crude looking fellow with an exceptionally round face and a permanent scowl, tried to draw a revolver from his holster, The strong hand of the butcher closed down over the reaching hand and Condor said, “I wouldna if I were you, Laddie, else you’ll be wearing the whole belt about your neck too tight to make any difference.” He patted the revolver worn in his own belt.

The three men walked off.

“My dear fellow Highlander,” said the stranger, “my name is George Grant and I have brought yon Angus bulls, off there in that corral, all the way from Scotland to breed with the Texas Longhorns those men seem to hold in great esteem. And you have the same dream that carries me. Where are you bound?”

“I head for the western lands to find us piece of land. I too will raise a breed of cattle the world will exclaim about.”

“Do you have any Angus stock?”

“None yet,” Condor said, “but I will do all in my power to get some there, to wherever I end up.”

The Scottish breeder, studying Condor all the way, said, “I had serious problems myself getting my stock here. I had to defend the measure many times, against taunts, aggression of all orders, near death at times of some of my best stock, as if people here are afraid of the Angus, the bare look of them. Times I think they believe their stock will be tainted, but those longhorns are not native to America to begin with. So we swell the opportunity to improve what came here before us, even before them.”

Grant realized he was tossing history right into the lap of history. He decided to keep going.  “When you get there, wherever that is, write to me in Victoria, Kansas or send me a message anyway you can. And I promise I will send you a new Angus bull right from my new stock. An Angus bull born in America, in the coming season. I guarantee he will be a choice one of the lot, a wee laddie later for all the ladies of the herd. Aye, Laddie, Scotland comes to America in wide intents. ”

He snickered in his humor, even as they parted company, with his parting thoughts. “Be well, Laddie, you and the lady of the wagon and the young one there riding that fair horse of his.”

He patted young Condor on the head. “Before you know it, young Laddie, you’ll be in the saddle for days on end. That’s the way it goes out here on this wild grass. There are cowboys and horses and Indians and rustlers and stampedes and dry land as far as you can ride in a day and rivers that are plain hell to cross, and then a new kind of heaven if you’re the right man. I’ve found mine in Victoria, Kansas.”

Grant turned to the elder Condor and said, “You write, Lad, and I’ll answer right properly, as promised.”

Ralston Condor saw how Alec’s interests expanded at the many sites of their journey westward, and the boy would not let go of the Broomstick horse. Every time down off a wagon, every night stop, every watering hole, he rode the Broomstick horse. Around campfires he rode, always showing off his dream.

It all happened in a few years … the land found and purchased, the herd started, and the letter written and sent to George Grant in Victoria, Kansas.

A few months went by and a wagon train, headed further west, stopped for a night near Kirkness, Texas. In the morning, before the wagon train started off, the wagon master and a drover completed George Grant’s promise made out on the trail: a young Angus bull was delivered to Ralston Condor at his ranch near Kirkness, Texas.

“Mr. Condor,” the wagon master said, “I bring you an Angus bull from Mr. George Grant of Victoria, Kansas. I deliver him and need you to sign this receipt so that I can prove the delivery. Mr. Grant said, in no uncertain terms, that this delivery be accomplished upon my sworn oath. I gave my oath and have carried it out through some harsh circumstances and animosity met on the way. Once there was a threat to kill the bull for meat, which we needed at the time, but my oath held me. And the fact that sometime in the future I will have to face Mr. Grant, a most persuasive gentleman.”

Condor, delighted with the young Angus bull, thanked the wagon master and gave him two head of meat cows for assuring the delivery. And Condor, respecting Grant’s instructions, crossed the bulls with Texas longhorn cows, producing a herd of hornless black cattle without horns that survived well on the winter range. The cows bred with Angus fared better in winter weather and weighed more the following spring. To Condor, it was the dream resolved, having the best breed in the new land, just as he had crossed the ocean to accomplish.   

At the time of the bull’s successful introduction into the Condor herd, Alec Condor, the Broomstick Cowboy, was just past ten years old and he kept the old broomstick, a souvenir of his youthful days, in the barn loft. He now rode a checkerboard Paint with the name of Broomie.

The boy and the horse were inseparable at all tasks and as time passed the boy grew into an accomplished drover, herder, wrangler, cowboy, any and all declarations of his duties, and his dreams. He rode night guard, point guard, trail breaker, was remuda boss, took turns at cooking when needed, and became a significant breeder of stock from Texas Longhorns and Angus cattle, once off the heart of Scotland. When he was 20 years old, both his father and George Grant now dead, the Broomstick Cowboy was the owner of a large ranch in Kirkness and had bred a great herd of beef cattle.

Once in a while, memory grabbing him by the hand and taking him elsewhere, he’d look overhead in the barn where the old broomstick looked down on him with constant reminders of Chicago, the smell of the stockyard, the miseries of a harsh life refusing to let go even in the face of great success, telling him that memories, dreams and hopes are all pushed into a breed mix of its own, knowing that he had his own place in the history of the new land, the new breed, and the new market, however long it would last.

Tom Sheehan

Image – Google images

3 thoughts on “The Broomstick Cowboy by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Hi Tom,
    I do like me a bit of Aberdeen Angus Beef!!
    Do you know that if the Aberdeen Angus is reared in Orkney then it has to be classified as ‘Orkney Bred Aberdeen Angus’ – The meat has a different flavour due to the nutrients in the grass that only happens in Orkney. The same is true for cheese.
    It is a bit different and is a good story about the introduction of a species.
    Excellent as always my fine friend.


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