La Pistolera

Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce lived in "beautiful, cruel country" near Arivaca. There were cattle rustlers, horse killers and pistol-packin' assassins. But Eva was a fighter. She went to prison herself for rustling, and she kept her pistol close at hand right

Eva Antonia "Bonnie" Wilbur-Cruce acquired a colorful nickname, La Pistolera, for her nasty habit of shooting at people who ventured too close to her ranch near Arivaca. Even her grand-nephew, Tucsonan Robert Zimmerman, noted episodes in which Eva used her gun to back off intruders.

One day when he was about 9, Zimmerman said he, Eva and Eva's husband Marshall heard a car stop at the second gate near the ranch. No visitors were expected, and getting to the second gate meant the car's driver had already picked the lock on the first gate.

"When somebody did something provocative like that, it put Bonnie into a different personality," said Zimmerman. "It was like she became a man."

She ran to a hilltop near the house and hid behind a tree about 100 feet from the gate. Eva watched as a man picked that lock, too.

"As soon as Bonnie heard that chain drop onto the ground, she yelled, 'You sonofabitch!' and she pulled her pistol and went, 'Bam! Bam!' She fired twice and blew out two of his tires. I mean, she was fast. It was like in the movies. I've never seen anybody do that before."

The man jumped into his car and floored it, racing back to Arivaca on two flat tires. Eva, Zimmerman and Marshall jumped into their truck and chased him into town at 70 mph. They followed the intruder's tire marks in the dust to the town restaurant, and Eva confronted him inside.

Whatever his reason was for picking the locks, Zimmerman said it satisfied Eva. She invited him back to the ranch for coffee and they stayed up most of the night talking.

But the bullets flew both ways.

One night in 1941, riflemen in the hills above the Arivaca Road attempted to assasinate Eva as she drove with her sister, Ruby. The bullets shattered the windows of the Buick sedan in which she was riding, killing one of the German Shepherds with them at the time.

Neither Eva nor Ruby was hit and the shooters never identified. Eva's nephew, Raymond Zimmerman, Robert's dad, age seven when the incident occurred, remembers seeing Eva and Ruby when they arrived in Tucson after the shooting.

"That Buick had a bunch of bullet holes in it," said Zimmerman, 68, a retired Hughes Aircraft worker. "Eva was frightened as she talked about it, but you know, not too much." She reported the incident to lawmen, but as the Tucson Daily Citizen later reported, nighttime shootings around Arivaca had become so commonplace they took no action.

The feud coincided with the Depression, making the times even tougher. To survive those lean years, Eva and Marshall also spent considerable time in Tucson. He worked as an $18-a-week department store clerk while Eva operated a business out of the couple's home there.

But given her personality, nothing mundane or reserved would do. She invented an entirely new persona, becoming Elaine Lutrell, master spiritualist. Her business card said, "Psychic Readings and Advice Given on All Subjects."

Trading on the perception skills she developed as a child alone in the desert, Eva got hold of a crystal ball, a triangle with a pendant dangling from its center, dressed in a wild outfit and began seeing clients in her living room.

Robert Zimmerman said some of the most powerful names in Tucson became regular customers. "She was good at it," he said. "I know as a kid when she was raising me, you couldn't put anything past her."

In the 1943 case that sent Eva to jail, she was accused, with her longtime cowboy Luis Lopez, on four counts of killing a mare that belonged to an Eloy man, a former Arivaca resident, and branding its colt as her own.

Eva's story was that the mare did indeed belong to her, and had broken its neck jumping from her corral. After that, she and Marshall had no choice but to shoot the animal.

But Eva, Marshall and Lopez tripped over themselves in their court testimony, dooming their defense. Marshall swore that he shot the mare after the fall, but the prosecution raised doubts as to who actually did the shooting.

And Lopez admitted before the trial that Eva had ordered him to tell the

broken neck story. But he contradicted himself in court, going back to the version Eva wanted. It included a strange explanation for the disappearance of exonerating evidence.

After killing the mare, Eva and Marshall said they cut the Wilbur brand off the animal, and hung it from the corral as proof to anyone who happened by that the animal was theirs. They did this as a means of self-defense.

A few days before, according to her lawyer's closing argument, a

"friendly cowboy" approached Eva to warn her that they--meaning "the big cattle interests"--were after her again.

But the brand vanished. Eva and Marshall testified that their coon-hunting dogs ate it.

The jury didn't buy it. Eva and Lopez were convicted on all four counts, with a recommendation that Lopez, whom the jury believed acted under Eva's orders, be given leniency. Eva's appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court was denied.

Mary Kasulaitis, who grew up on the Noon Ranch east of Arivaca, said the conviction revealed Eva for what she was, a stock thief, and noted that the case did not involve her neighbor, and nemesis, Charlie Boice. But cowboy E.S. Pepper, who'd worked for Boice for 16 years, did provide important testimony against Eva, as he'd done in previous court cases.

Frances Boice, Charlie Boice's widow, said, "I know my husband was real pleased when she went to jail because her stealing our horses was a real problem."

The Wilbur family, however, believes that Boice set Eva up to win the conviction.

The son of old-time Arivaca cowboy Morris Shepard seconded that view. Shepard worked for Boice, and most likely was the "friendly cowboy" Eva's defense lawyer referred to.

"My dad always believed Eva was framed," said Shepard's son, Pete, a 64-year-old cowboy. "He said Boice was taking over all those homesteads down there, and they wanted the Wilbur ranch bad. If you wouldn't sell to them, they'd try to get it some other way."

According to one story, told and re-told by participants, each time with varying details, Eva at one point owed $1,000 on her mortgage. But she was flat broke, with no way of getting the money other than selling her precious Spanish mustangs.

She didn't want to do it. "Those horses were her babies," said Raymond Zimmerman. "It pained her awful to have to sell them." She arranged a selling price, and accompanied by four Mexican cowboys, drove the herd to Amado, 30 miles north.

With the deal about to close, the unidentified buyer--Boice himself in one version, someone in cahoots with him in another--declared that he was willing to pay only a fraction of the agreed-upon amount.

Angry at the double-cross, Eva turned to one of her cowboys and barked, "Turn the horses loose!" As soon as they were free, the mustangs headed on their own back to the Wilbur ranch, the only home they'd ever known.

That same day, Shepard approached Eva with an unspecified offer of help. "I'll be at your ranch tomorrow morning before the sun comes up," he said.

Even though deeply suspicious, and doubtful that anything good could come from a Boice cowboy, Eva agreed. At dawn Shepard galloped up to the ranch. "The thing you should do is go to town right away and pay off that mortgage," he insisted.

Eva laughed bitterly. "How am I supposed to do that with no money?" she asked, wondering what trick he had up his sleeve. Shepard handed her a rolled cigarette paper and said, "I told you I was going to help you and I did."

Still suspicious, Eva dropped the strange gift on the table and received from Shepard a warning that this seemingly worthless scrap of paper should not be treated casually.

After he left, Eva unraveled the mysterious paper and found $1,000 rolled up inside. "I kept thinking something is wrong," Eva said later. "Maybe the money is fake. This must be a trick."

But it wasn't. Angry that Eva had been set up, Morris Shepard, who died in 1962, stepped forward with his own money to save the Wilbur ranch, providing a bit of Gary Cooper-style goodness amid a tale of blood and bitterness.

Ironically, said Pete Shepard, the money from his dad's good deed might've come from the bootlegging he did in the 1930s.

"My dad didn't talk a lot about what when on in those days, but I know one thing," said Pete Shepard. "Charlie Boice never went near Eva Cruce. She'd threatened to kill him and he knew she meant it, because she didn't

lie. I never knew her not to carry a gun."

One of Arizona's worst range wars ended quietly in 1944 when Charlie Boice sold most of his cattle interests and moved to California. Frances Boice said her husband was planning to get back in the cattle business in either Wyoming or Montana when he died of a heart attack 12 years later, at 54.

To the day of his death, no charge made against Charlie Boice by the Wilburs or anyone else was ever proved.

For Eva, the cattle war never ended. The events of those 11 years colored every breath she took from then on. Her prison experience in particular was transforming.

She spent much of her time behind bars dealing with the terrible summer heat and reading supportive letters from Catherine--"I'd much rather be inside and be honest than outside and be a crook, like some I know."

In their early letters, she and Catherine talked of Eva's innocence and the "rats" who put her there. But she soon resigned herself to doing her time, surviving by "putting armor around herself."

"I wish you could get in the jug, as you put it in your letter," Eva wrote to Catherine in July 1944, two weeks after starting her sentence. "The environment is tough on the nervous system. What can anyone expect under such a system of punishment? In my humble opinion it is all wrong."

In addition to her letters, Eva left behind a portion of her prison diary, a remarkable document that provides a touching, funny and sad look at daily life in the pen--the women lining up for syphilis shots, morning inspection by the matron, Eva killing time by reading the new Montgomery Ward catalogue, the gossip that a fellow prisoner was a morphine addict.

But the most riveting passages deal with the escape of two prisoners, who hoisted themselves over the wall with a garden hose. Eva knew of the escape beforehand, but kept quiet and wrote of it in her diary. She feared the guards would search the women's rooms, find her diary

and punish her for not notifying them. She decided to hide it.

"6 a.m. I got up and hurried outside to find a place to bury this diary. After I placed it inside of a tin can, I went behind my house and picking up a rock that had been in the corner for a long time I dug under it and placed the can in the hole and covered it up well, then I put the rock on top.

"'What are you planting there? Flowers?'" said a voice up on the catwalks.

"I looked up and saw a guard standing up in the corner. I ignored him and walked inside of my room. Once he was gone I got out and dug out the damn tin can. I walked in my room and looked for a place to put it, but not finding a safe place I decided to put it inside my shoes.

"So I put on a pair of thin white socks, then folding the papers carefully, I placed them in the bottom of my foot and then I put on another thin sock on top in order to protect the papers from the shoe leather ..."

The intrigue included the notation that one of the escapees was pregnant, and had been swallowing roach powder to try to induce an abortion.

Eva's loyalties throughout remained with the prisoners. She described settling into her cot for the night, shortly after the breakout, hoping the two women were across the state line.

"Don't make any difference which line," Eva wrote, sounding more like a moll than a college-educated woman.

Eva was released from Florence in early February of 1945. The immediate effects of confinement were obvious to her family in small ways. She'd stand before closed doors and wait for someone to open them, forgetting she was free to do so herself.

But other remnants of the experience were more long-lasting. She harbored considerable anger, especially if Robert Zimmerman called her Mama. It reminded her of the prison matron. "Don't ever call me that," she'd snarl. "I'm nobody's mama."

Family members acknowledge that prison made her a harsher woman, and it made the .32 on her hip a permanent fixture. If she heard a noise at night, Robert Zimmerman said she'd get out of bed and prowl the house, gun in hand. She stashed bullets in various rooms, as if preparing for a long siege.

When she was in her 70s, and still roping horses, she went cycling in a Tucson park. A man trying to steal her bike made the mistake of knocking Eva down, and she sprang to her feet with the pistol in hand, pointed at the man's belly.

The dumbfounded attacker stammered, "You c-c-c-an't have a gun in a park. It's illegal." She waved the revolver at him and said, "Then go find a cop." The man took off running, glad to be alive.

After Eva had a stroke in 1987, Zimmerman, fearful of an accident involving his children, snuck into her room and took the bullets from her gun as she slept. But she soon noticed them missing and demanded he give them back. He did.

"She was the authority," Zimmerman said. "There was one way to do everything--her way. But I think she was provoked into being the way she was. So many people tried to push her down, it made her a fighter. I think that's what kept her going."

Certainly circumstance--walking into a cattle war after her dad's death--played a part in forming her character. But Eva also was born with a rebel's streak an acre and a half wide. She did as she wished. She yielded to no obstacle. She fought to get what she wanted no matter what.

After being sentenced to prison, for example, she wrote a letter to the court claiming to be pregnant, but it wasn't true. She was angling for a way out of serving the time.

Present-day Arivaca rancher Jim Chilton recalled a conversation he had with Eva a few years before her death. She told him that as a teen-ager she and her father used to sneak onto Chilton's land--then owned by a homesteader--and steal his oats to feed their mustangs.

Chilton liked Eva, and considered her a friend, but he was surprised at the admission. "You should've seen the embarrassed look on her face when she told me," said Chilton.

But when it came to saving her horses, nothing was beyond doing. In one extraordinary episode, Eva acknowledged that she let her mustangs roam on her neighbors' land, including Boice's, but said she was guided to do so by nothing less than the voice of God.

It was during the cattle war, and a time of terrible drought. The land was so parched even her perennial spring was dried. And in addition to the fence around her own property, Eva said Boice had built a second fence, six feet from hers, around the Wilbur land.

Amid this desperation, her aunt, Rita, advised her to pray, but Eva wanted no part of it. "Don't tell me about prayer," she said. "I don't want to pray. I want to forget."

But strange things began happening. On a trip to Tucson, Eva was crossing a downtown street and saw a book that had been run over by a bus. She picked it up and opened it to a random page and read the words, Try God.

She dropped the book and kept going. Later the same day, she went to a book sale at the University of Arizona library and saw a book in a bin standing out from the others. She opened it and read the same words, Try God.

"Again!" Eva said out loud. "I don't want to pray."

She finished her errands and drove back to the ranch, arriving after dark. Her 200 horses were running in circles on the parched ground, throwing up dust clouds that curled to the top of the cottonwoods. "There was nothing to eat," Eva said. "The horses were going crazy."

She began carrying her supplies into the house. A radio on the kitchen table was playing a sermon by the famed Catholic orator Fulton J. Sheen. When Eva heard Sheen say the words, "Jesus wept," something compelled her to sit and listen.

"He had a very beautiful talk," she said. "I thought of the sisters in the convent, and I could see in my mind their beautiful hems with their rosary beads hanging down. But no prayers came to me. Then I remembered something I'd heard at the convent school that ended with the line, God have mercy on me, a sinner."

She muttered that line over and over to herself and she went back outside. The horses were neighing in desperation. The end was near.

Eva looked up to the sky and shouted, "God, what do you want me to do? Send us some rain! We're going to die without it! And a voice said to me, 'Go open your gate and his gate.' I opened the two gates and the horses went out. I came back inside and ate my supper and went to bed."

Next morning she noticed water in the crack that ran through her kitchen floor and was mystified over how it got there. She tried to open the front door, but couldn't. Something soft was blocking it. She thought an animal had died and fallen against it.

Afraid to open the door, she went to a low window, got down on her knees as if in prayer, and raised the shade. She looked out at snow drifts four-feet high. "I was scared to go out there," she said. "I thought to myself, 'What if it's a dream? I'll crack up.'"

When she finally mustered the courage to go outside, she sat in her truck, dreamlike, gazing through the windshield at the beautiful snow. After a while she noticed a Bible on the dashboard, left there earlier in the day by her friend, Catherine.

She opened it to Luke, chapter 18, and her eyes went immediately to the words, God have mercy on me, a sinner. Eva was stunned. She took it as final proof that the almighty had answered her prayers and saved her Spanish mustangs.

The animals were saved again in 1990. The year before, Eva had sold the ranch--except for 10 acres and the house--to the Nature Conservancy. The property was then turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for inclusion into the Bueno Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

To protect the area's sensitive habitats, fish and wildlife ordered the removal of the horses, a process that began with an inventory conducted by biologist Steve Dobrott. He found 100 animals in terrible shape, suffering depletion by sickness, another drought, preying lions and even traffickers who were stealing them to pack drugs across the desert.

Three months into his work, Dobrott happened to read A Beautiful, Cruel Country, in which Eva spoke of the family folklore about the herd's connection to Kino's mustangs. He'd never heard the tale, which had gained little currency beyond the Wilbur family, and wondered if it could be true.

Could these be the same horses that Kino used to stock the chain of missions and ranches he established in northern Mexico and present-day Southern Arizona?

Blood testing was arranged to determine if the horses, concealed from time by the isolation and remoteness of the ranch, still bore the genetic traits of the Spanish breed. The results, remarkably, were positive, scientific confirmation of the story Juan Zepulveda had told Dr. Ruben Wilbur more than a hundred years earlier.

But if it hadn't been for Dobrott's chance reading of Eva's book, the genetic and historical importance of the horses--a breed that had carried explorers, settlers, missionaries and Apache raiders over 300 years--would never have been rediscovered. They likely would've been sold to random buyers, and the strain gradually diluted to extinction.

As it was, Eva agreed to allow the herd to be dispersed to breeders pledged to keeping the strain alive. They were probably the last purely Spanish horses remaining in the U.S.

This final rescue of the mustangs served as a fitting end to Eva's story. The two were much alike--tough, rock hard, willful, unwilling to yield to the elements, human or natural, machine gun or drought. But with the animals' removal, and Eva's sale of the ranch, a way of life ended forever. The cost to maintain it had been incalculable.

"There's always been a lot of heartbreak out at that ranch," said Raymond Zimmerman. "My mom used to say, 'I don't want to go there. The place is jinxed.' I know Eva suffered a lot to keep it, and I was surprised she sold to the government when she did. But I know she had no regrets about the cattle war. There was a lot of hate there, but she never regretted fighting them."

Fighting was like food to her. Even at her lowest point, in jail, Eva refused to yield. In one diary entry, she talked of retreating to her cell to read a poem over and over, carving it into her memory. It makes a fitting epitaph. A portion of it read:

Pain twists this body? Yes, but it shall not
Distort my soul, by all the gods that be!
And when it's done its worst, Pain's victory
Shall be an empty one! Whate'er my lot,
My banner, ragged, but nailed to the mast,
Shall fly triumphant to the very last!