In the winter of 1959, a boy lay on the floor of a South Carolina farm house, writhing and bucking with a stomachache, the kind of stomachache a 12-year-old gets when he eats too many crab apples. Upon his plea, his puzzled father brought in a stick of firewood--probably ash or hickory, the old man was finicky about his firewood--and put it under the boy’s belly. The boy rolled back and forth on it and found relief. His father was amazed--Where’d you get that one, boy?
From a book, Pop.
I was that boy, and all these years I have carried within me that remedy for stomachaches, as I have carried the book in which I found it: “Lone Cowboy, The Autobiography of Will James” (published in 1930).
What a book! Tales of a boyhood spent in the saddle. The author’s own illustrations of broncs exploding out of a corral and of a trusty cow pony tethered near a cabin.
I had spotted it one day as the county bookmobile sat out between the house and the barn. My sister was looking for Nancy Drew books and my mother was off getting tea for the two plump ladies who took turns driving and dispensing books off the back of the truck.
It was not James’ first book, nor his most famous, but it led me into his world and I was soon pestering the bookmobile ladies to get me more of this man’s stories about life in the West in the early 1900s.
I have since learned that the best one, “Smoky the Cowhorse” (1929), made James an overnight success. It won the John Newbery Medal for juvenile fiction, went into numerous printings and was made into a movie three times.
Unlike the works of such Western writers as Zane Grey, James’ books were not about range wars and gun fights. James wrote of the working cowboy, a lanky, laconic type who was part athlete, part working stiff.
They were straightforward yarns about trail driving and breaking horses; about making camp under a big Western sky and waking to the smell of cowboy coffee; about knowing that there is only one other animal on Earth you can absolutely trust--your horse.
The early chapters of “Lone Cowboy” described how James was orphaned in Montana at age 4 and how he was reared by a family friend named Jean Beaupre, a French-Canadian trapper.
Young Will and “Bopy,” as he called his guardian, lived like wild geese, drifting from Canada to Mexico with the seasons. They trapped in the winter and prospected in the summer.
The book was full of practical, if eccentric, lore. How do you get the scent of death off a steel trap? You soak it in lye.
Lye was also what gave Will James a stomachache that nearly killed him. His youthful curiosity led him to take a swig of the stuff when he spotted it on a cabin shelf.
It took all winter for Will to recover from the lye’s scarring of his stomach. Rolling around on a log eased the pain.
Over the years, Bopy taught Will to ride, track, shoot, trap and skin. He even taught him to read, using old magazines found in some of the cabins they used.
One day Bopy disappeared, presumably drowned in a creek swollen from the spring thaw, and after that young Will took up with some cowboys and became one of the best bronc busters around. His self-taught drawing and painting also flourished and the rest of the book is taken up with those subjects.
As I read James’ autobiography in South Carolina, stuck as I was on a farm with barbed-wire fences and a docile herd of Angus, well, you can imagine how the story of his childhood excited me.
It was unforgettable.
And it was untrue.
When I found that out the other day I wanted to get down and roll around on a log.
Most of “Lone Cowboy” was autobiographical. But the first part, the best part, was made up.
I learned this from another book I came upon by chance: “Ride for the High Points: The Real Story of Will James,” written by Jim Bramlett and published in 1987 by Mountain Press of Missoula, Mont.
I got so worked up about the revelation in Bramlett’s book that I tracked him down. He’s a working cowboy, sculptor and artist and lives on a ranch in Ft. Bragg on California’s north coast.
“I don’t know why James made that up,” Bramlett said in a telephone interview. “But my guess is that he didn’t think a cowboy who was suddenly famous for his writing and drawing, and who was being published by Scribner’s back East, my guess is a man like that didn’t think he could admit to his true origins.”
As Bramlett’s book explains, Will James’ real name was Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault. He was born into a middle-class family in Quebec in 1892, displayed a gift for drawing before he was 5 and fell in love with the American West by reading pulp fiction.
In 1907, when he was 15, young Dufault kissed his parents goodby and set off for western Canada, where he began to learn the cow-punching trade. He drifted into the United States, using various aliases to rid himself of his French-Canadian ties before finally settling on Will James.
He did in fact become a first-class bronc rider and cowboy, and he left his drawings of horses and cowpokes all over outhouses and bunkhouses from Saco, Mont., to Tonopah, Nev.
Barely literate in English, James never dreamed he would be a writer. He figured when his bronc-busting days were over, he would become a famous Western artist like Remington and Russell.
But his art wasn’t selling, and in the 1920s, Alice Conradt, the Nevada girl he had married, persuaded him to start writing down the stories he loved to tell of his drifter days. He sent the first one off, with illustrations, to Scribner’s Magazine.
The writing had been so easy, he was convinced nothing would come of it. Instead, a $300 check came back with a request for more. The stuffy East was mad for cowboy stories, as it turned out. James gradually moved from stories to books and his editor was none other than Maxwell Perkins, the man who edited Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe.
By 1930, the success of “Smoky” had allowed James to buy a ranch outside Billings, Mont. But there was also pressure to keep the success going, and James switched from being a classic, cowboy binge-drinker to being a steady boozer. Afraid that his fans would learn the truth about his origins, he made a trip to Canada and swore his relatives to secrecy.
Despite some good days on his Rocking R ranch in Montana, he gradually withdrew from his wife and friends and nearly lost the deed to the ranch while on one of his benders.
For the tragic end of my hero, Bramlett urged me to read another book, also published in 1987: “Will James: The Life and Works of a Lone Cowboy,” written by William Gardner Bell and published by Northland Press of Flagstaff, Ariz.
I debated closing down all my research into the real Will James at that point. But my morbid curiosity won out. I found Bell’s book.
To my amazement, Bell writes that James lived his last years near where I live in Hollywood. In a rented house on Ivarene Avenue he worked on movie ideas and finished his final book, “The American Cowboy.”
But mostly he drank. When Alice, long estranged, came to visit, she hardly recognized him. He didn’t ask about any of the people he had been close to in Montana. In 1942, at age 50, he died in Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital.
It’s a funny thing about books. Sometimes they tell you things you could have gone forever without knowing. That’s sort of where I am after all these revelations about Will James.
But I should also add that I’m on the lookout for some copies of “Smoky” and “Lone Cowboy.” One day I’ll give them to my son.