The Wilbur Ranch near Arivaca was 'beautiful, cruel country,' and its owner--Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce--lived a hard, romantic life there.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
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
"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.
...Augustin arranged for Eva to be educated at the ranch by his sister, a secretary, rather than at the local school.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
daughter whenever she
wrote a poem or a corrido, a Mexican folk song."The cowboys write corridos, why can't I?" she
father also threatened to blister Eva
showed any interest in boys.Eva
wondered why her mother, Ramona, didn't rein in Augustin, protecting her from his worst instincts.
"I was so independent and self-willed that I think my mother gave up," Eva
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