A tiny family cemetery just off Highway 287, north of the Canadian River bridge, is an insignificant image lost among the greater iconic images so close to hearts and minds of Hollywood film makers and historical romance novelists. Battles between the Texas Rangers and the Comanche, cattle drives, vast ranching empires, shootouts on Main Street (seldom happened), the Cowboy Strike, wide open frontier towns where the major enterprises were saloons and brothels, and the gigantic XIT, the world’s largest ranch, are all icons that overshadow a cemetery of less than a dozen graves.
With headstones crumbling into dust, the names of those resting beneath them no longer legible thanks to the unremitting wind, blazing hot summers, and numbing cold winters, the cemetery endures. Wooden crosses mark a few graves, undoubtedly those of hired hands or strangers, but the wood is cracked and dry, and most have rotted and fallen to the ground. The wrought iron fence of decorative spikes that surrounds the little cemetery is streaked and weakened by rust, and it, too, will soon fall to the ground.
I don’t know the names of those who are buried in this family cemetery atop a hill above the Canadian River. I don’t know what caused their deaths, but I doubt it was old age. Disease, accidents, or violence are the most likely causes. With the exception of whoever lies beneath the large granite headstone, I doubt that the rest of the dead were buried in coffins, wood being scarce in the Texas Panhandle. Other than cottonwood and cedar along the Canadian River and its few tributaries, there were the mesquite trees,which were not very suitable for building coffins. I suspect most of the dead in that cemetery were buried in shrouds made of old sheets or blankets.
I never failed to look at that cemetery as I drove past, and I never failed to wonder who they were, those dead resting in their neglected graves. What dreams drove them to settle in a desolate, windswept land? Did they rest peacefully? Or were their spirits restless, their dreams unfulfilled in life? Did their ghosts walk the land, unseen, unfelt except perhaps in a dream? Did they still harbor regret, ambition, hate, love?
Gradually a story of a strong woman, a woman who stood tall among her neighbors and cast a long shadow over the history of Texas, emerged from my imagination, inspired by my curiosity about a tiny family cemetery on the prairie. Mattie Hunter, whose story I was to tell in A TIME TOO LATE and THE RECKONING, shadowed my life for several years, growing more distinct with time, until I could almost hear her voice with its faint southern accent, and smell the scent of honeysuckle that always heralded her arrival in my mind. When her demand that I tell her story became stronger than my reluctance to begin a project that was to take over my life for more than three years, I sat down in front of my computer and began Mattie’s saga with the dedication page in A TIME TOO LATE. . .
TO THE VARIOUS COWBOYS, RANCHERS, AND SONS AND
DAUGHTERS OF PIONEER SETTLERS WHO USED TO LONGER IN MY
BOOKSTORE TELLING ME STORIES OF THE OLD DAYS WHEN THE
RANGE WAS FREE, THE CATTLE HERDS VAST, AND MEN AND
WOMEN STOOD TALL AND CAST LONG SHADOWS.