<- Back to main page

The Pedlar Fights for His Neighborhood

by Patricia Barone


As usual, Seamus prayed to find a bed at Banfill’s Inn, though he may have to share it with a trapper or logger. Cer­tainly fleas and bed bugs. Anticipating venison, Seamus’s mouth watered—a juicy piece of haunch would lull his cramp­ing gut. He’d wash it down with German ale or cider.

   As his cart bumped him along over stones and branches that filled the washouts, he kept a sharp eye out for apple trees, indicating new settlers. None among these massive oaks.

   Welcoming puffs of smoke escaped the chimney pots of the large dwelling to his right. The inn was as fancy as you’d find in Dublin with its six-pane, double-glass windows, gables, and corner pilasters. The first time he saw it he was flabber­gasted.

   Instead of tying up by the formal front door, he pulled on his ox's harness to turn her around to the back where a lantern illuminated the hitching posts.

   After watering his ox in Rice Creek, he entered the tavern to find a raucous group of trappers and lumbermen making lib­eral use of a barrel of Bassett's whiskey. The French and Métis jabbered away. Some of his fellow Irishmen were close to brawling. A group of men from Massachusetts, judging by their brogues, all huddled together.

   One of them, his face red with drink, said loudly, “Only have until sundown. Might be havin’ trouble—let’s get mov­ing!”

   Another man shushed him in a low growl, “Leave, if you can't control yourself.” This man, dressed in a suit and a neck-choking shirt and cravat, sat apart from his companions.

   “Sorry, Mr. Fridley,” the man, a loose-weave smock over his trousers, flushed.

   Then another big wig in a suit walked through the door and sat down next to Mr. Fridley. “Mr. Henry Rice, a land speculator,” the publican whispered to Seamus.

   They’re up to no good, Seamus thought, seeing five more day laborers join the others.

   He finished his mutton and cabbage then asked the bar­tender in a low voice, “What are the nobs hiring the work men to do?”

   “Major Fridley is a high-handed man,” the publican mur­mured. “I heard Mr. Rice tell Fridley he had a choice bit of river property for him. And I’d guess the owner doesn’t want to sell. Likely prime land. If Rice doesn’t persuade the owner, Fridley’s men will do the job!”

   The bartender laughed in an unpleasant way as he held the pitcher out, but Seamus shook his head. With such land she­nanigans going on, how would he find land for himself and Molly? To win his Métis girl with black hair and green eyes, he’d made himself useful in her Ojibwe tribe’s camp. He’d been walking out with Molly for going on five years. Biyen, her brother, told Seamus that his father looked favorably on him, but no formal blessing from him yet.

   Seamus left the publican a good tip and went upstairs to put a sack on a bed, claiming his night’s rest. Then he got back in his ox cart to visit his customers. He often felt lonely on his route. He’d added another song, An Spailpín Fánach or “The Wandering Laborer,” to his repertoire. Since parting with my sweet colleen, I seek for one as fair and gay,” Seamus sang in Irish. The song was a goodbye to his former girl, his cailín in Tralee. Loving Molly Pictou-Winema, he wouldn’t be going back. It would shock his mam as well—put the heart across her. But she had to know, him gone so far, the Atlantic so wide. Too dispiriting. His pain required a tot or two of whiskey; he kept his wits in his head and his cart on the road and didn’t carry a bit of it.

   “Tarnation!” The axel snapped and he was flat on his back, cussing till dust filled his mouth; then he was doubled over with a paroxysm of coughing. Axles broke, trams cracked, and five-foot wheels spun off to shatter on the rocks. For such mis­haps, he usually had shafts of seasoned burr oak and plenty of bison hide strips, shaganappi, but he’d already used his only oak on another broken axel. “A diabhal!” The devil was having his way today.

   Sweat made tracks on his grimy face. He got to his feet and surveyed the damage.

   “Do you want some help?” The man’s canvas trousers were dirt encrusted.

   "Mr. Zebadiah Bryant, sure I thank ye kindly! Could I stop to install a new axel?”

   “You are very welcome, Seamus O'Sullivan.” Zeb grinned.

   Bryant led the way down a steep road. “I’ve aged lumber a’ plenty.” He worked at Steele's sawmill.

   Using Seamus’s broken axel as a pattern, Zeb selected a sturdy oak stave then whittled the ends to cone shapes. Together, they fitted the axel into openings between the large wheels. Seamus repaired the two wheel rims with babiche, a wet rawhide that tightened as it dried.

    “I’m framing a house by Manoomin Creek for my daugh­ter,” Zeb said as he and Seamus sat on Zeb’s small porch eating venison jerky and drinking wheat beer. “Cassie will marry in September.”

   “It’s only three years since your cailín was just a child who persuaded you to buy rabbit skin for a muff! Congratulations, Zeb. Now would ye be requiring some fine muslin and ribbons for Cassie’s nuptials?”

   Mrs. Emily Bryant and Cassie purchased satin, lace, silk, linen and linsey-wool­sey. Zeb, relieving Seamus of a shovel, rake and spade, paid him so handsomely that Sea­mus protested and handed back half of his payment.

   "You made the axel from your own lumber. Know that I am happy to assist you any way in my power." Seamus shook Zeb's hand and grinned. Their acquaintanceship was becoming a friendship, which was more important than money. It was a well-made axel; his journey back uphill was not so noisy.

   He was about to continue on to Pig’s Eye, but seeing a cloud of dust on the Territorial Road, he stayed where he was, watching the horseback riders get closer. The impatient rough­neck from the tavern moved his horse so close to where Sea­mus partially blocked Zeb’s road, that Seamus felt the horse’s spittle on his face. If these men were about to give Zeb and his family trouble, he wanted to stop them. Instead of continuing on his way, he pulled his ox around and went back down the hill. He deliberately kept the reins taut, so the ox lumbered and even stopped. All the while he did his best off-key rendi­tion of The Wandering Laborer. It gave Seamus great satisfaction to impede their progress.

   Mr. Fridley cursed him, while Mr. Rice urged Seamus to give his ox the whip. Molly had told him that her father despised Rice because he talked tribes into giving their land away for food and other basics that were theirs by birthright. Fridley, as Indian agent, withheld the Winnebagos’ govern­ment allotment. Not only that—Fridley himself had hanged a Dakota Indian.

   When Henry Rice, raising his voice, asked his name, Sea­mus turned his head and said, “Ye only need to know that Zeb Bryant is my friend!”

   In front of the Bryant log cabin, Zeb was talking to one of Molly's brothers—"A Biyen!” Seamus called in the Irish way, “Conas Conas tá tú? How are you?" Seamus had only a little Ojibwe. Biyen didn’t like speaking English but did have rudi­mentary Irish. His lessons had ended when he left his Irish mother's care for his Métis father's instruction in hunting, trap­ping and French.

   "A Seamus, Dia duit. The Great Spirit be with you. I’m well." Biyen, a foot taller than Seamus, drew him off to the side. “But Zeb and Emily are in danger. Please help me defend them,” he said under his breath. “Rice, up to his usual tricks, is after their land, our land, for Major Fridley. Where we’re camped is Zeb’s land, according to the United States, but he lets our doodem use it—we’ve been ricing and fishing here for multiple generations.”

   “What is a doodem?” asked Seamus, so at ease with Biyen that he didn’t hide his ignorance.

   “Doodem is Ojibwe for totem,” Biyen said, but Seamus didn't understand until Biyen added, "It’s a clan guided by an animal spirit." Clans—those Seamus understood.

   While Zeb greeted Henry Rice, his wife Emily left the cabin, a rifle broken across her arm. She stood by Zeb’s side.

   “Mr. Bryant, you will be handsomely compensated,” Frid­ley said, his deep voice seeming to issue from his toes.

   “I won’t sell to you, but follow me to the portion of my land in question,” said Zeb.

   Go tapa, quick!” Biyen said over his shoulder to Seamus, his tone urgent, and Seamus ran after him through the trees until they emerged into a grassy field that was blue, pink and yellow with wildflowers. It overlooked a curve in the Missis­sippi, the full blue expanse of it.

   A number of wigwams were grouped around a fire pit. Biyen whistled, brezz brzzzzzrr, the ascending call of a pine siskin. Ojibwe men appeared in the clearing holding bows. A larger number than Fridley’s followers. Biyen handed Seamus a rifle.

   Zeb, Emily, Henry Rice, and Major Abram Fridley entered the clearing, followed by the ragtag laborers. Facing them were Biyen’s band of Ojibwes and Seamus himself. He hadn’t shot a rifle in the new land, but back in the old country, he’d hunted until not a bird or mouse was left to eat. Then they had to eat the grass the cows, dead of starvation, had once eaten. An Gorta Mór, the big hunger, was devastating. But he’d never expected to forcibly defend land in the new country. His hands were sweaty, but he lifted his chin. After the famine he’d gotten stronger, he reminded himself, and, he hoped, more courageous.

   Zeb and Emily joined Biyen and Seamus. Ignoring Rice and Fridley, Zeb pulled out a piece of paper which he handed to Seamus, who felt like a stand-in actor in a play. “Mr. Seamus O'Suilleabhain, if there is anything out of order on this deed...”

   “What’s this!?” interrupted Henry Rice, “My friend Abram Fridley is the buyer...”

   “I will take this land, ” Fridley said, his long chin growing longer, it seemed.

   Biyen moved closer, looking intently at Fridley. “Sir, you are interrupting. Be quiet.”

   Rice said, “Mr. Bryant, my buyer was once a sheriff and is now an Indian agent... ”

   “Seamus,” Zeb said in a loud voice, “if all is in order, I’m ready for your signature on the deed to the northern section of my property.”

   “You will sorely regret this,” said Fridley, his tone so men­acing that one of the Yankees raised his rifle to his shoulder. Fridley said to him, “that will be enough for now.” The man didn’t move. Not even to lower his rifle.

   “What price is...” Seamus looked at Zeb, who shook his head.

   Zeb handed him a quill, and Emily held the ink bottle for him. Just as he was about to sign his name, a bullet grazed his knuckles. Though his hand was bleeding, indignation and a spurt of hope allowed him to finish his signature. Zeb ran to the cabin with the signed document. Emily said, “Seamus, get inside, and I’ll clean and bandage your hand.”

   While Emily was making sure that every last speck of gun powder was removed from the wound, Seamus watched Biyen’s friends ring the cottage, facing the rapscallion eastern­ers, who, outnumbered, crept away.

   Rice and Fridley left at a gallop up Zeb’s road, but soon the horses had to walk. Everyone in the cabin laughed. When Seamus was able to speak, he said, “Thank you, thank you, Zeb and Emily, but why did you choose me?” Seamus looked at Zeb. “I mean, all of a sudden I’m a landowner ... I’ll pay you all the money I have on me, then...”

   “Stop moving!” Emily ordered and smiled at him.

   “Biyen told us Molly Winema was staying with her people until you became a man of property, Seamus,” Zeb said. “And we needed to save our land for the use of the Winemas.”

   You’ll become a family member of the Pitou-Winemas,” Emily said. “If Molly wants you, so do we!” She laughed. “You’ve been fair to us, and you’re our friend—if you can stay still!”

   It had taken three years to become friends. It happened quicker in Ireland, but Seamus had nothing, nothing to com­plain about. He grinned and swelled out his chest. Today, he’d rest. Tomorrow he’d begin to cut down trees for a cabin.