by Mary Jean Munro
[The novel O'Halloran Land,
available from www.1stbooks.org, is
a multi-generation family saga set on the north coast of San Luis Obispo
County. In fictional form, it details early settlement by
Hispanic, Irish, and Italian Swiss pioneers, and tracks their
descendants into the twentieth century as they adapt to changes in
ranching and farming practices, and in the social and economic web of
the Central Coast.
The excerpt which follows,
reprinted with the kind permission of the author, details the
struggle between a grizzly bear and a group of cowboys--some Hispanic,
some Anglo, but all of them skilled in the vaquero tradition of
early California rancheros.
"At the pressure of the tightened ropes, the grizzly roared, rose to its full height and threw its taloned paws wide in threat to the men, who were now silent and staring. The giant then gave a single swat with its vicious claws, slashing a tightly stretched riata. Instantly, the men came to renewed and tense attention. In the space of a breath, several more ropes were thrown. All were kept carefully to the rear of the animal, out of reach of its claws, and most fell around its neck, while one caught a foot.
"All this action took place within the seconds before Joseph’s slow-moving mount could bring him to the scene. He arrived late, swinging his heavy hemp rope that was far shorter than the lightweight braided leather lines carried by the others. Unhesitating, Joseph forced his roan into the melee and made a daring cut, closer to the animal than that of any of the other riders. His rope dropped neatly.
"Until the moment of Joseph’s arrival, the bear seemed to react with little more than angry curiosity toward its tormentors. The new horse and rider now galvanized it into delivering a mighty slash with the unfettered forepaw. Joseph’s rope was severed and his horse ripped in a great gash from its ribs to its haunch.
"Blood spurted in a splashing arc over the company and its terrified horses, drenching Joseph, who was thrown dazed to the ground only feet from the enraged bear. Before the fallen man could shake his head clear, Antone charged forward with an extended arm and stirrup to lift the victim out of danger. Once safely deposited on a jutting rock, Joseph felt his raked thigh, then stared weakly at his fingers, bloodied by the exploratory touch.
"As soon as Antone saw Joseph safe, he whirled his horse and dashed back to the men working with worried faces, no longer playing a game. One or two waved their guns. Flourishing a broken riata, Antone yelled, "Don’t shoot! You can only wound him with the pistols! Throw! Throw your loops! Topple him, get him down!"
"The terrified horses reared and twisted, their nostrils distended and their eyes red with fear. Still, they were forced to obey their determined riders as the maddened bear lunged and slashed, trying to reach the men and the choking ropes. Finally a riata reached one of the bear’s hind feet, lifted momentarily from the ground, and the monster crashed down in a shower of bloodied sand. Instantly, the second uprooted foot was secured and the animal stretched flat, still raging violently as Antone dismounted and walked in to empty his pistol into the beast’s mouth.
"When the great grizzly at last lay lifeless, Antone picked up his hat from the churned sand and stood slapping it distractedly against his pants. When his wavering knees at last gave way, he slumped to the ground still holding his empty pistol and the trampled hat. In the silence of aftermath, Jorge slowly dismounted and went to place his hand briefly on Antone’s shoulder before turning toward the injured horse which lay twitching in its own blood. He looked only once toward Joseph before he brought his short-barreled gun up. No one moved until the echo of the single shot died away.
"The rest of the riders got quietly down to take their ropes from the dead bear and to soothe the horses, restless in the stench of death. At first the men whispered, moving cautiously without looking at one another, pushing at the great grizzly with the toes of their boots. Finally, one man gave a nervous chuckle, and before long, they were all in self-conscious horseplay around the great carcass. Away from the crew, among the tumbled boulders leading to the beach, Antone, Jorge, and Joseph watched."
Jean Munro was born just over the San Luis Obispo county line, in Santa
Maria, but she grew up in the Arroyo
Grande Valley, on land that was cleared by her great grandparents,
George O. and Barbara Jones Taylor, and that land continues to be in the family to
the other side of her family, Mary Jean’s paternal great-grandfather,
Williard McNeil, settled in Pozo and raised a large family.
His son Frederick (who was Mary Jean’s grandfather) married a
California native named Angelina Custodia Smith.
Angelina’s unconfirmed family oral history claims that through
her mother, Francesca Lopez, she was a
descendant of Pio
Pico, well known in the history of Mexican California.
The claim may be true—Angelina’s mother, Francesca Lopez, is
said to have been expelled from her family when she married one Nicolas
Smith, a Mexican from Baja California, whose ancestry is traceable to a
shipwrecked British sailor, but who was decidedly not ‘Spanish.’
All Mary Jean knows for certain is that Francesca Lopez left
Santa Barbara with Smith, and that their daughter Angelina (Mary
Jean’s grandmother) later laughingly complained to her children that
she had been “cheated out of half of Santa Barbara’s State Street”
by her mother’s disinheritance.
Custodia Smith McNeil became one of history’s first "motel
maids” when she worked at San Luis Obispo’s Motel Inn—the first
“motel” in the country, and in the world. She was employed
there from its beginning in 1925, and for many years she was Supervisor
of the motel's custodial staff.
Mary Jean’s Munro’s
family background has strongly influenced her writing.
As she says, “Interest in the human side of history is my
inheritance. I couldn’t
avoid it, even if I wanted to.”
She is currently writing a novel about a woman working on a
fishing boat during the '60s and '70s.
She indicates that it’s a way of life almost entirely lost, yet
one with which she is well acquainted. --Lynne Landwehr
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