Québécois cowboy’s exploits explored
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/11/2019 (1094 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Back in the day, there was a bestselling author of award-winning westerns who went by the name of Will James. Before he became a famous writer, James was a cowboy. And before he became Will James, he was Ernest Dufault, a young lad from Quebec who dreamed of becoming a cowboy.
Young Dufault spent the money he picked up from odd jobs to buy a pair of six-shooters and stole the milkman’s horse in a failed attempt to live the dream. When he turned 15 in 1907, he left home to pursue his dream, with his father’s blessing and his mother’s tears.
Benediction fictionalizes the story of James’ early years. Written by a distant relative, Olivier Dufault, Benediction was first published in French in 2017 and translated into English this year by Pablo Strauss.
After some time in Western Canada, the young cowboy wannabe makes his way to the Western United States. Along the way, he creates the Will James persona, adjusting it as the occasion requires.
“I was born on the wagon trail in Montana,” James says, also claiming both his parents died and that he was raised by a friend of his father, a French-Canadian trapper.
The West where Will James learned to work and play was not the gentle ranch country of a TV show like CBC’s Heartland. The author sets out a beautiful but harsh land, a world full of hard-riding and hard-drinking men — men who were often maimed and broken for life, who often treated their women no better than their cattle.
Descriptions of the land, despite detail being piled upon dusty detail, somehow fall short of establishing an emotional connection with readers — the passages just don’t have the cachet of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, for example.
But when he is writing about wild creatures, Dufault has a knack for taking readers inside their heads: “The crafty coyote had taken note of the two cowboys, those peculiar bipeds… riding off and leaving a trail of their nauseating yet somehow sweet signature odour, which he hated with a passion.”
On another occasion, we get a horse’s-eye view of the risks a cowboy faces: “It was him or them… and he was going to break them to pieces. This was a duel to the death, and the buckskin intended to leave his adversary slumped in a pool of blood.”
When the roundup season is done on a ranch, James heads out with another cowboy. They come across a herd of 30 stray cattle and steal them. Will is lucky; he is caught and sentenced to 15 months in jail, while his partner is hunted down and killed by a hired gun working for the ranch owner.
Once out of jail, after a brief and humiliating stint milking cows for a farmer, James picks up the cowboy life again.
That is brought to an abrupt end when he is kicked in the jaw by a vicious wild horse, and needs to go to the West Coast for major dental repairs.
The storyline rides off into the sunset with a letter the 23-year-old James sends his parents from San Francisco. “I’ve given up on cowboying, there ain’t no good prospects in it, them cowboys are a dying breed and in 10 or 15 years there won’t be any left at all.”
The author he would become “was still dormant inside him.”
Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.