An hour later I cross Rock Creek on the east edge of Ottawa, Kansas, and take exit 184, making a right turn on to Marshall Road. Almost exactly one mile further west, where Marshall Road turns into East Fifteenth Street, I turn left into Highland Cemetery. A scene from some Technicolor western movie unfolds across my windshield. It’s Kansas; the wind is blowing; half a dozen people are gathered beside an open grave; their black coats flap about their legs; a plain wooden coffin lies beside a pile of dirt as a preacher says a prayer; his words are lost in the wind; four men pick up rope ends and lower the coffin into the grave; a small woman takes a shovel that’s been stuck in the dirt pile, uses it to throw some dirt into the hole, stabs the shovel back into the pile, and walks away, alone. The others turn and follow at a distance. Off to the side, a man walks up to the grave and starts filling it in. We see a close-up of the woman’s face; it’s Naomi Stitcher. She pulls out her iPhone and checks her Facebook page. Mykala’s question gets me out of this mental theatre.
“Any clue about how to find hers?” she asks, but she probably knows the answer. Most of these headstones are pretty weathered; I’ll look for a reasonably fresh one, assuming Naomi actually had one made instead of just marking the grave with a small granite block.
We drive west on Marshall Road, between two small lakes; Marshall becomes East 15th Street. I turn left into Highland Cemetery and am immediately faced with a choice: left or right at the fork. I take the left drive, wind around through the trees, and find a place to park. We get out, separate, and start walking among the graves, looking for any that seem relatively fresh, dug and filled in during the last few months instead of the last century. A few have plastic flowers. One is fresh; there is no grass on the mound of dark brown dirt. According to headstones, a man and his wife, born in 1840 and 1842 respectively, occupy the same plot after living to the ages of seventy-nine and seventy, respectively. A sergeant in the Pennsylvania infantry, born in 1841, survived the Civil War and lived until he was sixty-four. Another Civil War veteran, from Rhode Island Volunteer Company D, born in 1837, lived to be nearly eighty. Rebecca Stitcher, producer of mathematical equations, lies among soldiers that war carried, eventually, and finally, to the prairies where she, her mother, and her sister also ended up residing. Now I’m curious, not so much about the location of Rebecca’s grave, but what it was in her family history that delivered her, eventually, to Ottawa, Kansas.
Mykala calls from a hundred yards away. It’s hard not to stop and read the stones as I walk to where she’s standing between a weathered stone and three others.
“Jeremy Stitcher,” she reads; “Eighteen forty-one to nineteen oh seven. Sergeant, Company F, second Illinois artillery.” The other name on this headstone is Mary Stitcher, 1843 – 1906. “They’d be Rebecca’s great great grandparents.”
“A Union soldier came to a free state to make a new life after the war.”
That’s college professor babble, making up history for a person, and a brutal time in our nation’s development, about neither of which is this prof very knowledgeable. But the babble is not too far off. Highlands Cemetery in Ottawa, Kansas, is filled with Civil War veterans, as are the cemeteries of similar communities throughout the eastern half of the country.
“Laid down beside Mary, eighteen forty-three to nineteen oh six; Rebecca’s great great grandmother. Looks like they’re in the same grave,” she says; “I wonder if they opened up Jeremy’s so they could put her in with him.” Something about the tone in her voice tells me that when we get back home, and she has access to her beloved library resources, we will find out quite a bit about burial customs and practices, especially west of the Mississippi in the late 1800s. She walks around, leaning over to read the names and dates. “Got a whole bunch of Stitchers in here.”
The other stones mark the resting places of William and Anna, Rebecca’s great grandparents, and Ethel, her grandmother. There is no headstone for a grandfather or a father. The new ones are for Isabelle, her mother, and Rebecca. The mounds of soil have settled, but they are still barren. It’s impossible to stand in Highlands Cemetery and not review everything you know about American history, American social customs, American economy, and the lives of your own parents and grandparents. Standing among their graves, these Stitcher ancestors become real people who made decisions, probably worked at trades, sewed quilts, had babies and named them, at least one of them after the woman who offered to draw water from a well for Isaac’s servant and his camels. This Biblical Rebecca was obviously more generous and congenial than the one whose lair was in the basement of Halliburton Hall.
I always carry a few plastic bags and a little sticky-note pad to make a label. You never know when you might come across some rock, or gravel, or even unusual soil type that needs to be collected. Mykala watches as I reach down and take a handful of dirt from Rebecca Stitcher’s grave.
“Stand there for a minute,” she says. She uses her phone to take pictures of me collecting a dirt sample from Highlands Cemetery, Rebecca’s grave, and the headstones of all the Stitcher ancestors. “Nineteen sixty-four. She was fifty-one years old.”
“She was a very bright lady,” I admit; “who should never have ended up our institution.”
“She paid her bills,” says Mykala; “did her research, and taught her classes.”
“None of it happily.”
We stand there in silence, both studying the arrangement of headstones and both, I’m sure, imagining what happened to the father and grandfather, why they’re not with the rest of the Stitcher line, and what the maternal side of this family might be able to tell us from the grave. At least those are my thoughts. I know my wife well enough to know that she’s also assembling not only a plausible history, but also a “to do” list for when we get home. That list is likely to have nothing to do with any investigation, especially of a murder, but plenty to do with the satisfaction of her own curiosity. I’m guessing that when she gets into the post-Civil War history of Kansas and Missouri, she’ll find some of the most brutal violence on record, beginning with the Quantrill Raiders and their attack on Lawrence. I hear a voice.
“What in the hell are you people doing?”
I turn and recognize Naomi Stitcher. She evidently is on foot because we’d heard no car and there is none parked within sight.
“Get away from my sister’s grave.”
Mykala starts to say something then decides to stay silent, just observing what might happen in the next few minutes.
“I said get away from my sister’s grave.”
Her tone is flat, businesslike. She’s shivering a little bit; I can’t tell if it’s from the morning chill or the fact that we’re here.
“You must be a relative,” says Mykala. I now remember that the only time either of us had encountered Rebecca’s sister Naomi was when I was in the funeral home, so Mykala has never seen this woman.
“How many times do I have to tell you to get away from my sister’s grave?”
Now I’m wondering if Naomi is carrying a concealed weapon. In a fit of good judgment, I don’t ask.
“I’m Mykala Marshall.” My wife introduces herself. “We’re just paying our respects to these individuals.” She gestures toward the headstones. “So if you’re a relative, can you tell us why there are no grandfathers or fathers here?”
Naomi Stitcher responds to Mykala’s question by opening her coat, reaching inside, pulling out a black pistol that looks exactly like one of those still packed in the boxes in the back seat of my truck a hundred yards away, and working the slide to load a round. She holds the weapon down at her side, pointing at the ground.
“Now get away from my sister’s grave.”
We turn and walk back to the truck. As I start the engine, I look back. Naomi Stitcher is kneeling on her sister’s grave, her head in her hands. It’s another fifty miles down Interstate 35, through the Kansas Flint Hills, before either of us speaks.
“Do you believe she would have shot us?” asks Mykala.
“Through the left eye, with a large caliber pistol,” I answer.
“Gideon, do you think we should get those guns out of the boxes?”
“And do what with them?”
“I don’t know,” she answers; “I really don’t know what I would do with a loaded pistol.”
“Except maybe put forty rounds into the head of a paper target.”
(All of the Gideon Marshall Mysteries are available as both e-books and nice paperbacks. Just go to my web site for a ready buy option.)