After Serving Time, Will James Changed His Ways and Pursued the Life He Loved
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
I am a cowboy, and what’s put down in these pages is not material that I’ve hunted up, it’s what I’ve lived, seen, and went thru before I ever had any ideas that my writing and sketches would ever appear before the public.
Most of us live within the law and dare not stray, sensing a certain cosmic order that ought to be upheld, unless the law itself seems to run against the grain, yet even then we err on the side of lawfulness. Outlaws, though (we’ve got plenty this month), are cut from a different cloth. They seem to take pleasure in doing the very opposite, in violating the golden rule, and though glorified in film and fiction, cause real harm. Butch, Sundance, and the Curry brothers barely raise an eyebrow these days (see pages 22-23) but in their heyday they wreaked havoc upon the West. Today, Outlaws ride motorcycles instead of horses (see page 9), bad hombres not to be crossed, and well organized. The West seems to be the place for them, though their activities stretch across the entire country. And they are proud of what they do (having recently faced indictments for witness tampering, felony possession of firearms, drug trafficking, conspir-acy to commit violence, and that grab bag of criminal charges contrived especially for organized gangsters—racketeering. That pride manifests in their One Percent symbolism—the percentage of motor-cycle clubs said to be criminal in nature (as opposed to merely recre-ational and social, the type that aren’t outlaws).
Most of us though do not relate to a life of crime. We identify with the good guy, the hero, even though anti-heroes have been glorified cinematically for half a century. And the guy we identify with and admire most is the one who changes his ways, the prodigal son who returns to the fold in spite of his dark past.
Will James, a contemporary of Charlie Russell, probably falls into that category. Take a look at his self portrait on this month’s cover, the image he would have us know him by, a tall, straight upstanding character with eyes fixed on the far hor-izon rather than short term gain.
Will James (born Joseph Dufault, 1892, in Quebec,) hardly seemed an outlaw, more the all American cowboy (though Canadian by birth), and we’re stretching the definition to include him in the outlaw category. He was a writer of books and an illustrator, an artist. At age fifteen, he became fascinated with the Wild West and dreamt of being a cowboy. He spent time in western Canada learning the cowboy trade (and English) before heading to Montana in 1910 or so. It was then, in his new life, that he changed his name to William Roderick James. He later did time in the Nevada State Prison at Carson City for cattle rustling, 15 months that seem to have changed the course of his life and outlaw ways.
While in jail, the man we came to know as Will James took care of the prison’s horses, a fitting job for a fellow who wanted to be a cowboy. After leaving prison, he worked in Hollywood as a stuntman, where he was hired for his ability to pull a horse over backward, the way stuntmen do. He then continued in his fascination with the American West (after serving in the U.S. Army) by selling sketches and working as a wrangler for the Nevada Round Up in Reno. That was July 1919. A few years later, after suffering a severe concussion, having been thrown head first from a horse, and after attending art school in San Francisco, a betrothed Will James sold his first written work, Bucking Horse Riders.
James wrote and illustrated four more books published in the 1920s: Cowboys North and South, The Drif-ting Cowboy, Smoky the Cow Horse and Cow Country. Various adaptations of Smoky appeared on the silver screen, including one in 1933 narrated by James. Living and writing in those days in Nevada, he had become a celebrity, and as such endorsed the Tom Brown Stetson hat he frequently wore in photographs. But Montana, his port of entry to the U.S., seems to have been his land of dreams. Bending reality, as he was prone to do, James claimed the Judith Basin, and other times Billings, as his birthplace.
It was in 1926 that Will James made Montana his home when he bought several thousand acres in the Pryor Mountains south of Billings, his Rocking R Ranch, where he lived an artist’s life, that of a writer, painter, and illustrator. James wrote Lone Cowboy during those years, a fictionalized autobiography (his blend of subjective and objective truth) that became a bestseller and Book of the Month Club selection. He wrote The American Cowboy, his last book, in 1942, having written and illustrated a total of 23 books.
James also spent those latter years at his home in Billings—on Smoky Lane, an idyllic property to this day set amongst ancient cottonwoods, graced with a natural creek, and in the shadow of impo-sing rimrock straight out of a western movie—the setting that inspired this story. The house, crafted of sandstone block and cedar shake, hides quietly in a Billings neighborhood beneath the immense rimrock facade, a Western edenic garden of sorts just minutes from the hustle and bustle of town. The place, renovated and exquisite, now serves as a testament to James’ climb from perdition, though he fell again in the end, having died in 1942 at the age of 50 from alcoholism. Seems the dark side is not so easy to paint over with mere pen and ink.
James’ good fortune was that he lived to see his stories, dreams, and imaginings on the silver screen—he even became famous (a significant collection of his artwork and writings can be found at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings) and he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1991.
Outlaws can indeed change, though a force may lurk within that needs reckoning, we reckon. They, like so many, may bear the scars of their past, a record written in their inward parts, even though some may leave a redemptive mark upon the landscape of the Wild West, like Will James. —No man’s fate, though, is written in rimrock.
Note: Cover image, Lone Cowboy, reproduced with permission from Joe Hays/Will James Art Company, 2237 Rosewyn Lane, Billings, MT 59102. Lone Cowboy, My Life Story (by Will James) remains in print through Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, MT.