Baylis Fletcher died a century ago, well before I was born. I made his acquaintance as a reader, as you may have guessed. I'm a curious biographer even when I'm not writing, so as I sometimes do when I meet an interesting figure from our history, I set out to learn more.
Here's what I discovered about Baylis John Fletcher. He began life on the fourth of July, 1859, in Lexington, Texas. He was the youngest of seven children, all born within a decade that must have been a wearying blur for their overworked mother, who died bringing Baylis into the world. His maternal grandparents and an unmarried aunt, Ellen Roddy, took the infant off his grieving father's hands, and in their care Baylis grew up riding, roping, and branding. It was a neighboring cattleman named Tom Snyder, owner of 173,000 acres, who hired Fletcher to help bring his animals north. In places like Abilene, Kansas, Texas cattle were being bought and loaded onto railroad cars headed for slaughterhouses in the East, but Snyder's cattle were bound for Wyoming, where ranchers were building herds. Aunt Ellen worried about her nephew facing the dangers of the trail, from bandits to Indians to stampeding animals, but Baylis was determined to go. He traced his sense of adventure to the pioneering spirit of his grandparents, who had migrated to the Texas wilderness from South Carolina and Tennessee.
The cowhands and animals began their trek on April 11, and covered ten to twelve miles a day. They moved north in the daylight, and the men took turns guarding the herd after dark. And of course they encountered some of the hazards Aunt Ellen had feared. One quiet night, as Baylis and a companion spun yarns beside a campfire, they suddenly heard a steady roar and saw a cloud of dust coming closer. The herd was stampeding, for no apparent reason. The two cowboys dove behind an oak--the only shelter in sight--and held on for dear life as the cattle thundered past, so close that their horns tore the bark from the other side of the tree. "It was a moment of supreme terror, but only a moment," Fletcher recalled. In seconds the stampede had moved past, and he was on his horse, racing to outrun the herd and turn the lead animals back. The party met Indians, too, but they were hungry rather than hostile and grateful for the gift of a steer.
Fletcher saw sights that stirred his heart and others that saddened it. By mid-August the men and cattle had reached a high plateau from which Fletcher could make out snow-capped peaks in the Rocky Mountains, a hundred miles away. He compared their creamy color to something familiar, "the yellowish thunderheads seen sometimes at a great distance in Texas." Another day, he came upon the carcass of a horse that had been killed by lightning, lying beside a newly made grave. "No explanation was needed," he wrote. "Some Texas cowboy had cashed in--had been killed by lightning and was buried beside the body of his faithful horse...without a woman's tears, without a single tribute of flowers, and doubtless without a coffin."
Cowboys and cattle reached their destination, Cheyenne, Wyoming, five months after leaving Texas. The men delivered the herd, sold their saddle horses, and proceeded to a bank to collect their pay in cash. Filthy and shaggy from their time on the trail, they bought new clothes, visited a barber, and found rooms in a hotel. In Cheyenne they took in things they had never seen, such as the shoeing of oxen. While they were dining at their hotel, a black man came in and sat down near them. This would never have happened in Texas, and one cowboy was so incensed that he picked up a chair and broke it over the man's head. He was promptly arrested and fined, to his friends' great surprise. Even more astonishing was the news that African Americans could stay in any hotel in Wyoming Territory if they had the money to pay for a room; it was the law. The cowboys spent a few days in Wyoming and then were ready to board a Union Pacific train that took them as far as Waco, Texas, where they bought horses to ride the rest of the way home.
Despite his early training and skill at driving cattle, Fletcher felt drawn to occupations that kept his clothes clean. After his first and only cattle drive, he became a clerk in Lexington's general store. He married Marie Louise Hester, one of his employer's nine daughters, and with her he would have five children. Fletcher trained to be a teacher and rose to be principal of Lexington's public school. A Democrat, he served one term in the Texas legislature, from 1895 until 1897, and he was treasurer of Lee County, Texas, from 1900 through 1911. He also made money trading cotton.
Baylis John Fletcher died on December 19, 1912, in Giddings, Texas, the seat of Lee County. He is remembered for his public service and for his book, but he is not the best-known person resting in Giddings City Cemetery. That distinction belongs to William "Wild Bill" Longley, a notorious outlaw if there ever was one.
Now I am curious all over again. What can I discover about Longley? I'll let you know.