Eva Antonia Wilbur stood her ground.
She told the ranch hand to drive the cattle up the road, but the cowboy insisted on going by way of the creek.
“I am driving this cattle, not my Father, not you, either,” Eva stormed. “I don’t pay you to tell me what to do. I pay you to do what I tell you to do.”
The ranch hand, Federico, again disagreed with Eva’s order and that was enough for the fiery cowgirl.
She dismissed him on the spot.
In 1987 when Eva wrote about this incident in her book, “A Beautiful, Cruel Country,” describing her childhood on her grandfather’s ranch, she recalled that as she started after the cattle, she threw her right leg over her saddle but her rowel, the sharp-toothed wheel at the end of her spur, caught and tangled in the horse’s tail.
Standing with her left foot in the stirrup, one hand on the saddle horn and the other holding tight to the reins, she struggled to release her boot from the horse’s tail as the animal reared up and tore across the spread trying to rid itself of the unbearable pain.
Eva knew with dreadful certainty that “a rider with a foot tied to a horse’s tail was as good as dead.”
The commotion of hysterical horse and panicked rider reached the ears of Federico as he sauntered down the trail.
Realizing the danger his ex-boss was in, the cowboy dashed toward the horse and grabbed the reins.
But the distressed animal continued to buck and rear. “The more he fought,” said Eva, “the more I pulled his tail ... .”
Finally, Federico threw a handkerchief over the horse’s eyes and calmed it enough for Eva to slip out of her boot and onto the ground.
He could tell she was about to faint, lose her breakfast or both, and assured her he would remain until she composed herself.
Accepting her thanks, the cowboy knew he had just been rehired.
“You hire them and you fire them,” her father had instructed Eva when he put her in charge during his absence. “But I will hold you responsible for anything that goes wrong. No giggling and no crying!”
At the time, Eva was barely 10 years old.
Born on Feb. 22, 1904, to Augustín and Ramona Wilbur, Eva described her young life as “fenced in. I had no social life whatsoever ... My father did not allow us to go to school ... It’s very difficult to grow up like that ...”
The Wilbur Ranch, homesteaded in the mid-1800s by Eva’s physician grandfather, Ruben Augustine Wilbur, lay in Southern Arizona near the town of Arivaca. Mountain lions, antelope, deer, burros, a multitude of small creatures and a rainbow of birds made this ranch land their home.
Dr. Wilbur raised cattle and goats along with a herd of horses known as Spanish barbs. Cowboys called them rock horses because they climbed steep, rough slopes with ease, and had hooves so hard they could not be shod. Eva’s father lived and worked on the ranch his entire life and expected his oldest daughter to follow in his boots and absorb all he taught her.
“There seemed always to be new and more difficult lessons to learn,” Eva said, “and I was expected never to show any fear or signs of weakness.”
She recalled the time Augustín poured pungent creosote liquid into a maggot-filled wound on a suffering calf, then dug into the lesion to dislodge the grubs. He then ordered Eva to remove the remaining maggots.
“I put my finger inside the wound and felt the maggots moving against the tip of my finger,” she said. “I felt sick, retched, and vomited over my father’s hand.”
“Toughen up, toughen up,” Augustín ordered. “You’ll get over it.”
As soon as she was old enough to handle a horse by herself, she was given one of the rock horses, Diamante.
“I took to the trails at will,” Eva said, “Diamante my faithful companion, my playmate. But he was also my protector. He would gallop joyfully down the creek with me on his back, but if there were any sign of trouble he would stop, point his ears, turn around, and head for home. Even if I pulled on the reins Diamante would take the bit in his teeth and never stop until he had arrived at the kitchen door.”
She spent long days alone out on the land, checking watering holes, looking for lost calves. She found comfort in the birds and animals as she and Diamante made their rounds. “The quail, the wolf, the coyote,” she said, “I knew them, and they knew me.”
Eva received very little education until age 13 when she was sent to the Guardian Angel Convent School in Los Angeles. Having little contact with other children during her formative years, she found it difficult to interact with the other students. The sisters told the girls that Eva was “from someplace in Arizona — some wild place. You must be kind to her because she doesn’t know anything.”
In 1933, Augustín died leaving 29-year-old Eva to run the ranch. That same year she married Tucson department store clerk Marshall Cruce. The couple lived in town but Eva spent her weekends at the ranch trying to maintain the ancient homestead.
At the time of his death, Augustín was involved in a dispute over cattle, land and water rights. Eva was soon thrust into the fray pitting neighbor against neighbor with cattle and horses killed on all sides of the ongoing hostility. She earned the nickname “La Pistolera” since she would shoot at anyone who got too close to Wilbur property.
Arrested, tried and convicted of killing another rancher’s horse and marking its colt with the Wilbur brand, Eva was sentenced to serve two years in Florence Prison. She entered the penitentiary in May 1944 and was paroled in February 1945. In 1989, Eva sold the ranch to the Arizona Nature Conservancy and sent the historic Spanish barb “rock” horses to the American Minor Breeders Conservancy.
Eva died Feb. 4, 1998, just shy of her 94th birthday.