As the sun dipped below the horizon, rancher John Thompson headed his horse toward home.

He took his usual route, but knew he had to keep a sharp eye out for his neighbor who had a habit of taking potshots at anyone passing too close to her property.

Cecil Creswell was a crack shot and Thompson wanted no part in quarreling with her.

The gunshots came quickly, nearly knocking Thompson off his horse. As he ducked low and spurred his mount into a hasty gallop, he grabbed for his saddle horn only to discover the lady sharpshooter had shot it clean off. Thompson hightailed it out of shooting range.

No cowboy wanted to cross Cecil Creswell. Her petite stature and mop of gray hair belied her ability to perform just about any task on her small ranch, and she could outshoot most men in the area.

She had lived on her Winslow property since 1924, gaining the reputation as a hard worker who kept to herself. She was also known as a cattle rustler.

Born in Olivet, South Dakota, sometime between 1892 and 1901, Olive Dove Van Zoast left home around the age of 14 and eventually settled in Winslow, working as a Harvey Girl at La Posada Inn. No one knows how or where she acquired the name Cecil.

Harvey Girls had to adhere to strict standards. Pristine white aprons covered long-sleeved blouses with high starched collars and skirts rising no more than 8 inches off the floor revealing black shoes and stockings. Hair was captured under a net tied with a white ribbon. The girls could wear no makeup or jewelry; even chewing gum was frowned upon.

Cecil apparently accepted the rules and regulations of being a Harvey Girl but whenever she had the chance, she shed her nun-like uniform for boots and Levi’s and headed down to the horse barn to ride into the country unencumbered by the conventions of her job. She was an expert horsewoman.

Cecil married several times but eventually settled down in Tuba City with George Creswell, a livestock inspector for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

George died in 1924, leaving Cecil with 160 acres of bare land just outside of Winslow.

She moved onto the property, poured cement for the foundation of her home and plastered the walls herself. She built a corral and dug a water tank for her cattle with only a pick and shovel. She hauled water from Clear Creek, about a half-mile away.

She used both the Bar 3 Bar and Rafter 3 brands on her livestock, and could throw a hefty cow weighing several hundred pounds, branding it with no assistance.

When she needed money, she worked as a hired hand on nearby ranches and could hold her own with cowboys when it came to riding, roping and wrangling.

Her troubles escalated during the 1940s. Some speculated she began rustling cattle because she needed the food, while others thought she was just plain ornery. When she started shooting at anyone approaching her property, her reputation as a menace and pilferer of fine beef escalated.

Cecil shopped at Babbitt’s general mercantile in Winslow, often swapping fresh beef for groceries. Usually the stock she brought in was borrowed from a neighbor, but if she could not find a stray cow, she substituted burro meat, proclaiming it fresh beef right off the range.

She appropriated a bull from a local rancher and colored the bull’s light tan coat with henna dye, turning the hide a deep red. She branded the animal with her Rafter 3 brand, and for over a year, the rancher rode past that red bull not recognizing it as his lost property.

Most ranchers looked the other way when Cecil stole a cow here and there, assuming she needed the meat to survive. Winslow law had no desire to go after a woman who could shoot straighter than most of them, and the local sheriff of Navajo County, Ben Pearson, sometimes brought her boxes of food and clothing to help her out.

In 1949, Cecil was arrested for shooting at one of her neighbors and placed under a peace bond. Three years later, she was fined $300 for cutting down a fence and trespassing. She was charged with cruelty to animals for shooting a bull, fined $150, and given a suspended jail sentence. But times were getting tougher.

On March 4, 1954, the Arizona Livestock Sanitary Board charged Cecil with rustling cattle and horses. Sheriff Pearson and Deputy James E. Brisendine, along with a group of ranchers, headed out to arrest the gray-haired, 60-plus-year-old woman.

Cecil agreed the men could look around her property for evidence of rustling, claiming she had raised all her livestock from calves. The cattle bore Cecil’s Bar 3 Bar brand, but when the men clipped the hair off the shoulder of one of the calves, another brand appeared. The investigation uncovered 21 stolen cows.

More evidence piled up when the men found an old horse in her barn belonging to one of the ranchers, and discovered a lime pit filled with at least a dozen cow carcasses.

Faced with arrest, Cecil asked if she could return to her house before being hauled off to jail. She was allowed to go into the house alone and as soon as she disappeared, Deputy Brisendine knew they had made a mistake.

“I was expecting to hear the crack of her .30-30 Carbine at any second,” he said, “and from that distance, she could pick us off one at a time.”

One shot rang out, but no other gunfire was exchanged. Sheriff Pearson shouted for Cecil to come out, but received no reply. He and Brisendine cautiously approached the house. The sheriff hammered down the door.

“(W)e found the most heartbreaking thing that one could imagine,” said Brisendine. “Cecil had put the barrel of the gun into her mouth and pulled the trigger ... .”

Cecil is buried in Winslow’s Desert View Cemetery.

Cecil Creswell was a cattle and horse rustler. She was also a woman in a desperate situation. She survived as only she knew how — with her gun, her grit and her wits. No one messed with the gray-haired lady from Winslow.

Jan Cleere is the author of several historical nonfiction books about the early people of the Southwest. Email her at Jan@JanCleere.com