La Pistolera

The Wilbur Ranch near Arivaca was 'beautiful, cruel country,' and its owner--Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce--lived a hard, romantic life there.

Books written by aging memoirists rarely capture public fancy. But Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce struck a bit of literary lightning with her 1987 work, A Beautiful, Cruel Country, published by the UA Press.

It described her childhood on the Wilbur Ranch near Arivaca, southwest of Tucson, a now-vanished life on the open range, herding and branding cattle at age 5 and playing with Tohono O'Odham children before that tribe's reservation was formed.

The New York Times reviewed the book favorably, and Eva was celebrated as a living relic of history, personified by the inside-the-book photo of her as a 13-year-old on horseback. Little Tonia, as she was called, had a rifle draped across her lap and wore an oversized sombrero as she stared steel-eyed into the distance.

But her depiction of a hard, romantic life in the wilds near the Mexican border was only part of Eva's past. Behind the image was another story, one that to this day, more than 60 years later, causes descendants and friends of those involved to clam up, claim faulty memories and slam down the phone in anger.

At issue is the long cattle war Eva fought with neighboring rancher, Charlie Boice. To her dying day, she believed that he, as head of the Arivaca Ranch, part of the giant Chiricahua Cattle Company, was trying to drive the Wilburs off their land.

Their feud consisted of grisly episodes of violence and retaliation that reverberated through southern Arizona ranch country for 11 years. In 1933, it even drew front-page coverage in a Los Angeles newspaper. Headline: Machine Gun Bands Bring Reign of Terror in Arizona.

These events defined Eva's life in a profound way, shaping her character, thoughts and everyday movements, even causing her to sleep with a .32 caliber revolver under her pillow until her death in 1998, at 93.

But she only spoke of the trouble in vague terms, explaining to close family that she'd prefer not to be hung, and many longtime friends remain only dimly aware that it occurred. Even fewer know of the 10-month stint she served at the Arizona State Prison for cattle rustling, an episode linked to the war.

The women's pen in Florence was an unlikely place for the five-foot-three-inch, brown-eyed Eva, who, in her 1944 prison mug shots, looks somewhat bookish in her wire glasses and close-cropped hair.

In fact, she was a jailhouse rarity, a woman with two years of college education sharing a cell block with toothless check-kiters and waitresses turned man-shooters who'd never heard of David Copperfield, one of Eva's favorite books, and probably couldn't read it even if they had.

They must've wondered, too, about the incessant taping coming from her cell. Throughout Eva's life, and especially in prison, she wrote continually. Her typed prison letters to friends and family show a nimble mind, keen to the day's news and cultural issues.

She also worried deeply about whether any proceeds from her writing might pay for the education of her nephews. And at age 40, she wrote of her responsibility to behave in a certain way around the younger inmates.

In a May 1944 letter to a friend, she described being ostracized after suggesting that female prisoners undergo an "intensive course in reading and correct thinking," believing it would "fortify their spirits" and "redeem their natures."

Eva wrote, "I am still in the doghouse. Wa-ha! You can't blame them. They think I'm contriving some vicious method of punishment. They are suspicious of me because I don't join in their escapades. God forbid! I am no model, but because I'm older, I do believe I should be less frivolous."

But as always with Eva--like the book that told only the pretty stories--there was a flip side, aspects of her character that seemed completely contradictory. Yes, she loved Copperfield and her precious typewriter, yet she was one of the toughest customers, male or female, Arizona ever produced.Wyatt Earp could've taken lessons from her.

She possessed a singular ferocity when crossed, and an almost animal-like determination to make the transgressor pay. Even the rigors of confinement couldn't change that about her.

She got her colorful nickname, La Pistolera, for her nasty habit of shooting at people who ventured too close to the Wilbur property.

Her grand-nephew, Tucsonan Robert Zimmerman, who cared for Eva in her last years, tells of her prison sessions with a priest. He often met with inmates to get them to acknowledge their crimes and seek repentance.

The priest would say, "Now Eva, do you know why you're in prison?"

She'd say yes. Then the clergyman would lean forward and say softly, "Vengeance is a sin, you know."

And Eva would respond, "Yes, father, and I'm a sinner. And as soon as I get out I'm going to sin again."

THE WILBUR RANCH, established about 1868, was one of Arizona's oldest. Its founder was Ruben A. Wilbur, a graduate of Harvard Medical College who came to the Territory to work as a physician for the Cerro Colorado Mining Company, located near present-day Arivaca.

The doctor had three children, including his oldest, Augustin, who was born on the ranch and seemed to savor its remoteness too well. He walled himself within its boundaries, avoiding interaction with neighbors and creating in his five children--including Eva, born February 22, 1904--a powerful suspicion of others.

"My father built a corral around himself and his family, and wanted his family to live in isolation," Eva said in a recorded 1989 interview with Tucson author Patricia Preciado Martin. The isolation even extended to speaking Spanish in what Eva described as "corral dialect," understood only by other Wilburs.

Augustin arranged for Eva to be educated at the ranch by his sister, a secretary, rather than at the local school. Her day started at 6 a.m. in the barn, where she and little sister Ruby sat at either end of a plank held up by boxes. The teacher sat in the middle, working with a small piece of slate and a few Spanish readers. The school day lasted until 6 p.m. The Wilbur girls were taught in that primitive way for seven years.

At the same time, Eva was required to do difficult ranch work. At 10 years old, her father told her, "When I go away, you're the boss. You're responsible. You tell the men what to do and see that they do it."

When the ranch hands were building a fence, Eva would ride out to oversee them on her Spanish mustang, Diamante. If the men were standing around, she'd give them her best little-girl glare and tell them to get on with it.

"But it wasn't fun to be boss," she said. "Mexican men were not bossed by women, especially in those days. And by a little girl? They would say, 'Are you crazy? Don't tell us what to do.'"

Sometimes they laughed at her. "It was difficult for me to take that," Eva remembered, "and my father would get angry and say, 'Why can't you make the men work and not talk to you like that?' But I couldn't do any more as a child."

But Augustin, a stern disciplinarian and taskmaster, asked more and more of his oldest daughter. In addition to fence work, Eva rode the range to check on the Wilbur herd and cleaned water holes to keep them running. Some were located as far as 20 miles from the ranch along the wide-open Mexican border.

"The first two years I worked there were very difficult," Eva remembered. "I was resentful. I felt as if I was the only girl in the country that was doing that. And why? Alone over there all day, and then to come back at night? It was very difficult.

"I was raised alone. I knew the animals, but I didn't know the people. My happiest years were with the animals. I learned brotherhood from them. They were such good friends."

In the Martin interview, a session with this writer in 1994 and in her own published words, Eva made it plain that she saw herself part of the terrain, intimate with its contours, its canyons, the rhythms of the seasons, and profoundly intuitive about everything upon it.

The land had wind and wolves, and it had Eva--each untamed, each sharing the same life and each drawing sustenance from the other as they struggled together to survive on the unforgiving desert. She told one story of approaching a water hole and feeling hot, sick and tired. She dismounted, laid across the branch of a fallen oak tree, and felt a strange sensation. Her father told her it was from the pressure of her body against the branch.

But she believed it was something coming from the tree, some unknown power. "If I tell that to you or anybody else, they'll say she's crazy," Eva said. "But this is true. I felt it from the tree, some sort of nutrition. It gave me the stamina I didn't have."

She talked often of the prairie dogs she fed and the curious Mexican hawk she befriended. Every time Eva went to a certain spring, the hawk would sit on a rock in the water and watch her. She joked that the only way she could get rid of it was to sing to it. Then the bird would soar to the sky and perch in a hackberry tree, far from the sound of her voice.

Living the way she did, amid aching silence, unencumbered by human voice or concern, she developed keen sensory abilities.

"The distance speaks and the wind thinks, and it moans and does all those things," she said. "When you are not alone, you don't know it because you don't have to listen. But when you are alone, you listen."

Eva's solace, in addition to the animals, was writing, even though her father was staunchly opposed. He scolded his daughter whenever she wrote a poem or a corrido, a Mexican folk song. "The cowboys write corridos, why can't I?" she protested.

Her father also threatened to blister Eva if she showed any interest in boys. Eva wondered why her mother, Ramona, didn't rein in Augustin, protecting her from his worst instincts. At the same time, she described herself as a "terrible child," with her own ideas about everything.

"I was so independent and self-willed that I think my mother gave up," Eva said. "She used to call me La Loca. 'Come on, Loca! Come to eat!' If I was ready to eat I would go. If I wasn't, I wouldn't."

In one of the most tape's riveting segments, Eva said of her father, "I told my mother I wouldn't have stayed if I married a man like that. As I told my grandmother, I would have poisoned him." Then she laughed with gusto. "He never broke my spirit," she said. "Nothing ever did."

AT 14, EVA LEFT ARIVACA to attend the Guardian Angel convent school in Los Angeles. For someone more accustomed to wolves than humans, the experience was initially disastrous. Eva would cower behind the piano in the playroom while the music teacher, a Sisters of Mercy nun, gave lessons.

One day a girl said, "Sister, what's the matter with Eva? What kind of person is that? Where did she come from?"

The nun said, "Someplace in Arizona--some wild place. I don't know where it is but they eat chicken and spareribs with their hands, and they point at people. Horrible people! You must be kind to her because she doesn't know anything."

She told Robert Zimmerman, who called her Bonnie, that she behaved like a stray cow.

Once at a school picnic, she tried to show off by pulling an old ranch trick. She'd grab a calf's tail and twist it until the animal flipped onto its back. But when she tailed the calf at the picnic, the animal flipped onto the food and drink, ruining the afternoon for everyone.

Said Zimmerman, "Bonnie raised me and she always said, 'You need to learn how to act. When I went to school I didn't know how to act and this is what I did.'"

Eva cried her entire first year there. But by the start of the second year she'd adjusted, and couldn't wait to get back to school.

Her eagerness was due in part to an unusual relationship she forged with Leona Chipley, an English writer who lived near Guardian Angel and became, in many ways, Eva's literary guardian angel.

Eva told of sneaking away from the school to visit Chipley to engage in good conversation about books, make cookies together and to finally find what she sorely lacked at home--someone to nourish Eva's deep longing to write.

"I used to recite to her the little poems I wrote when I was at the ranch," Eva said. "She was the first person to listen to me and encourage me to write. She showed me the books she wrote, and suggested the books I should read."

Her meetings with Chipley usually took place at suppertime. At the clang of the school dinner bell, Eva would sneak out. Once on the other side of the fence, Eva would dart up the hill and through a wash to Mrs. Chipley's.

The Sisters of Mercy nuns educated Eva until 1921. When she returned to Arivaca, she resumed ranch work for several more years, but the California experience had dimmed the appeal of life on horseback.

More importantly, though, as Eva said, "The animals didn't know me anymore, so I was quite bored."

In April of 1933, she was back in California, attending Woodbury College, when she received word that her father had been thrown from a horse and killed. He was 56. With her brothers and sisters uninterested in the ranch, Eva, then 29, took over ownership.

She walked straight into a passel of trouble between Augustin Wilbur and Charlie Boice.

As she was leaving her father's funeral, an old woman pulled Eva aside and whispered, "I hope you go back to school, back to where you came from. Don't stay here. Your father and that man are having a cattle war, and if you stay you are going to get it."

Eva said, "I thought to myself, it isn't my cattle war. Why should I get it? Get what? But the guy, he gave it to me. He didn't stop. He was having a war with my father, but I thought that didn't concern me."

DETAILS OF THE CONFLICT come from newspaper accounts, court testimony and the recollections of longtime Arivaca residents and members of the Boice and Wilbur families. Not surprisingly, each blames the other for a nightmare time of poisoned wells, livestock shot between the eyes, multiple search warrants and assassins' bullets fired on lonesome desert roads at night.

And legal cases. In less than a decade beginning in 1933, Eva and Charlie Boice met in court five times. She joked about that in an exchange of prison letters with friend, Catherine Murphy, who'd excitedly told Eva about a book she'd read called Lawrence of Arabia.

"Frankly, I have not heard of it," Eva responded. "In fact, all I have heard for the past 10 years is 'versus Eva Wilbur-Cruce.'"

Someone once asked Eva if she believed Boice was trying to drive her away because she was a woman, or because she was Mexican. She said neither. It was about water. The Wilburs had it, and in their view, Charlie Boice wanted it.

He was the youngest of three brothers, described by his wife, Frances, now 99 and living in California, as well educated, quiet and a gentleman. The Boice boys ran the Chiricahua Cattle Company, which had holdings throughout southern Arizona, including the Rail X, the Empire and Arivaca ranches.

The family acquired the Arivaca property in 1930, and began buying out smaller ranchers in the vicinity. Frances and Charlie and their kids lived in a sprawling house with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a dining room table that seated 20, a screened porch and a big swimming pool out back.

The Wilburs were close neighbors, separated only by Boice's wire-and-pole fence. But a portion of that fence was usually knocked down, allowing his cattle easy access to Eva's precious year-round spring, a short distance from her ranch house.

In her 1943 rustling trial, she testified that the fence was first uprooted in the spring of 1934, and had to be re-built every week for the remainder of that year.

"Every time we put the fence up in those days, Tom Renier was working for Charlie Boice there, and he would go and rope one of the posts and pull the fence down," Eva told the court. "Then Chiricahua cattle would come down and water at the Wilbur ranch."

One of Boice's own cowboys, E. S. Pepper, corroborated that. He said Boice's other fences were good, but the one abutting the Wilbur property had been down for three years, allowing his boss' cattle to go wherever they pleased.

Eva said the practice of tearing down her fence stopped during several wet years in the mid-1930s, but resumed in a drought that began in 1938 or 1939. She estimated that 500 to 700 of Boice's cattle watered there every day during the summer. "There is no way to keep them out," she said.

Nor was there any way to protect the Spanish mustangs that had roamed Wilbur land since the late 1870s. They were first brought to the area by a Mexican horse trader named Juan Zepulveda. He was driving 600 head from near Rancho Delores, Mexico, about 100 miles south of the present-day border, to Kansas City, and selling portions of the herd along the way.

When Dr. Wilbur bought some of the horses, Zepulveda told him they were direct descendants of the Spanish mustangs that Jesuit explorer Fr. Eusebio Kino first brought to the New World from Spain in the late 1600s. That story became folklore in the Wilbur family, handed down through the generations.

But Eva knew the animals simply as the family herd, the small and loyal mounts she'd ridden since girlhood. They were so tough the ranch cowboys nicknamed them rock horses, for their ability to scale steep mountain slopes. Eva recalled men trying to shoe them and watching in amazement as the nails bent against the hardness of their hooves.

Whenever she needed a horse to ride for her ranch work, Eva would rope one of the wild mustangs and break it to the saddle. "They took me wherever I wanted to go," she said.

At her father's death in 1933, the ranch held 700-800 of these Spanish barbs, as they were called. By 1943, the number had dwindled to 70.

Asked on the witness stand what happened to them, she said her understanding was that Boice had shot them. That was the only time she accused Boice, publicly and by name. On every other occasion, she referred only to the cattle baron.

In a flippant letter to a friend, written from prison in June of 1944, Eva described what happened when she returned to Tucson after her father's death:

"Buoyed by youth, no doubt, I don my chaps and spurs and bravely accepted the onus of coping with the intrepid, heroic cattlemen of that region! Consequences: My head is bloody but unbowed. What will it take to bow it? Ha!! Anyhow, the following will refresh your memory.

"While I was trying to acquaint myself with stock and pastures, cowboys and equipment, neighbor cattle baron, of no mean ability, drove 100 head of saddle horses into the national forest and slaughtered them with a machine gun. Effects: Sentiment was running high in Tucson, and I was utterly spoiled by the sheriff's office."

Sarcasm aside, Eva believed, rightly or wrongly, that law enforcement was lined up against her, and in favor of what newspapers then called the big cattle interests, meaning Chiricahua Cattle. After the horse-slaughtering episode, she cut her brands off the carcasses and brought them to county attorney Carlos Robles.

In court testimony, Eva said he was downright hostile to her, saying, "Well, you cattle people talk about caring for a horse like it was the Virgin Mary. Don't come over here and talk to me about it."

Filing a formal complaint against Boice, as the sheriff suggested, would've been pointless for another reason. Shortly after her meeting with Robles, Eva said the brands, her only evidence, mysteriously disappeared from his office.

But someone was indeed systematically slaughtering the Wilbur horses.

Eva's husband, Marshall Cruce, whom she met and married over a whirlwind four-day period in early November of 1933, said that when he started going to Arivaca, he saw many dead horses. Some lay in groups of two or three, and one batch numbered 15. Each had a silver-dollar-sized hole in its head, as though someone had fired at close range with a .45 caliber pistol.

The story of the machine-gun slaughter even reached Los Angeles, where the Examiner likened the goings on to "the famous Chisolm feud in New Mexico of Billy the Kid's day."

The newspaper reported that a vigilante band of unnamed Santa Cruz County cowboys had organized for the avowed purpose of hanging anyone caught stealing a cow. The head of the outfit, Patagonia cattleman O.A. Case, was its only member whose identity was known.

"We're going to stop cattle thievery and horse rustling if we have to string a dozen men to as many cottonwoods," Case declared. "And the law will be with us. No jury in Arizona would convict a vigilante of murder if he used some contemptible desperado to stretch hemp."

The Examiner said the Wilbur ranch, "near the flat-roofed adobes of Arivaca, historic cow village," was the target of most of the assaults. Horses have been driven away at night, and have either disappeared or been slaughtered. Cattle have been herded through isolated canyons where the brands have been changed before the animals were sold.

"The story of the raids on the Wilbur ranch sounds like a movie scenario," the Examiner wrote in the fall of 1933. "Mr. Wilbur died some time ago. The place is under the management of his daughter. According to the account she gave the under-sheriff, a wealthy cow baron has been trying to drive her out of business so that he might buy the range."

The country was said to be crawling with armed men hunting for tracks after night raids. They follow their quarry until the foot or horse prints end in a stream or on a rocky mesa.

"Usually the outlaw escapes into the wild mountainous country, or else goes home and is peacefully smoking a pipe when the vigilantes arrive," the paper reported.

Eva described herself as caught in the middle of the trouble.

"You can imagine how hard it was for me. I was alone," she said. "My brother Henry came one day and said, 'I'll help you look for the horses.' And we went and rode the country and found 18 horses dead in a ravine.

"And we kept on looking. We report it to the sheriff's department. The officers went over there and we rode over the country, and more horses, all over the country, dead."

But Eva was hardly a helpless innocent caught in a whirlwind of bullets. She was in the thick of the fight, giving as good as she got. Zimmerman said Eva and her cowboy used to sneak out at night and kill Boice's cattle.

"They'd kill 10-15 a night. Shoot 'em right between the eyes with a pistol," he said. "She even told Boice on the courthouse steps, 'I'm going to shoot 10 of your cows for every one of my horses that you kill.' That's why she never talked about it. What she was doing was a hanging offense."

Zimmerman said one of her lawyers allegedly advised her to kill Boice, believing he could get her off on murder because there'd be only one side of the story. And at least then the war would be over, he said.

"They were sworn enemies," Zimmerman said of Eva and Boice. "They tried to destroy each other."

Even the late rancher's wife, Frances Boice, acknowledged that her husband probably was trying to drive Eva off her land. But he had good reason.

"She was stealing his horses," said Boice in a telephone interview from California. "When his horses had colts, she'd take them and brand them. I know she was sent to jail for doing the same thing to somebody else."

Some contemporary Arivacans agreed that Eva was as much responsible for the trouble as anyone. They said she had too many horses and cattle on only four square miles of land, badly overgrazing it. To keep her stock from starving, she turned the animals loose on other people's property.

Mary Kasulaitis, who grew up on the Noon Ranch east of Arivaca, remembered peering over the Wilbur fence as a child and seeing Eva's horses, neglected and near death from starvation, the bark eaten off the trees as high as the animals could reach.

Three years ago, Kasulaitis wrote a long denunciation of Eva in The Connection, an Arivaca newspaper. She said it took her 12 years to muster the guts to publish it.

"A cowboy told me he saw one of her stallions actually break the fence down so the mares could get out and get something to eat," wrote Kasulaitis, now the town librarian in Arivaca. "Surrounding ranches had to fence her animals out, not the other way around."

In a telephone interview, Kasulaitis said it was Eva who was cruel, not the land she lived on, and expressed outrage at the acclaim she received after publication of A Beautiful, Cruel Country. She called it an inaccurate reconstruction of her life on the ranch, written to gain the respect she didn't have in Arivaca.

As for the cattle war, Kasulaitis acknowledged in her Connection story that Boice's dealings with small ranchers in Arivaca left some feeling they'd been forced out. She added that it's impossible to know exactly what went on between Eva and Boice, or to interview people who'll tell the truth about it, even today. But she scoffs at the depiction of Eva as a woman alone against a greedy land baron.

"Her cattle ran all over Charlie Boice's ranch and he was tired of it, I know that," said Kasulaitis. "This isn't to say that Charlie Boice was entirely innocent. He was tough, too. This was still the Wild West in the 1930s. You had to be tough to survive. But Eva's attempt to get revenge on Charlie touched everyone in the valley."

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