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True grit in the modern American West: 'The Last Cowboys' by John Branch

True grit in the modern American West: 'The Last Cowboys' by John Branch
The Wright's property is in picturesque Utah, near Zion National Park . (John Branch)

The 1,200 acres the Wright family owns in Utah, just shy of Zion National Park, can't alone support their hundreds of cows. To keep the herd growing — as many as 4 pounds a day per head, in peak season — the family leases close to 20,000 acres from the federal government. But developers are coming and tourists are massing and federal employees keep setting the number of animals they can run lower and lower each lease renewal. As John Branch explains in his gripping new book, "The Last Cowboys," there was money to be made — with beef prices rising every year for five years in a row — but those dollars were being made by fewer and fewer ranchers.

One of the original Mormon families to settle Utah, the Wrights today are a multigenerational clan headed by Bill, the plain-speaking patriarch who — like his sons and grandsons, but not so much the women, who mostly occupy supporting roles — is both a rancher and rodeo rider.

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It's nearly impossible not to find Bill earthy and real. "Worst ride I ever had was better than my best walk," he says; one of his two Australian shepherds is named Dog. We fall in love as well with the larger family's ingenuity and way of life. During branding — presided over by Bill, his son Cody and the four grandsons, Ryder, Rusty, Statler and Stetson — each calf is marked with the ranch's unique logo. The cowboys "wiped dryer sheets on their faces, because it was the best thing they'd found for fending off the swarms of gnats that came from nowhere on hot, breezeless days."

You can tell, especially when it comes to rodeo — in the galloping career of two-time World Champion Cody Wright and his many talented sons — that Branch logged countless hours in trucks and chutes, surrounded by dirt and dust, to understand just how these worlds function.

As complex as the math for cattle ranching can be, the grim numbers for rodeo are just as meticulously explained. Riders pile into one truck, for instance, driving 12 hours to hit an event in Wichita, and in the eight seconds allotted for each official ride on a bronco that's trying to kill them a rider might earn only $72, or nothing at all. Then they all pile into the truck again and drive through the night to another rodeo, as far away as Montana. No one makes a dime there, although the promise of riches awaits at the end of the season. But hundreds of head of cattle, not to mention wives and kids, are waiting at home.

An image at the rodeo from 'The Last Cowboys' by John Branch.
An image at the rodeo from 'The Last Cowboys' by John Branch. (John Branch)

The violence is astonishing: Clavicles are snapped, heads are stepped on, arms are broken, bones emerge from skin, blood runs into the dust and the men and boys keep going. At one point, the "clack of hooves" rings on one of Cody's son's helmet — hard enough to be heard across the arena.

All this effort is working toward making the cut for a 10-day championship in Vegas, which Cody's sons are increasingly in position to compete for as well. (It doesn't hurt that their father's contact list on his phone is actually full of horses, each entry devoted to the characteristics of a horse someone in the family has ridden in a rodeo and one someone will eventually need to ride again.)

The family does so well in 2016 that together the Wrights go home from the Vegas finals with half a million dollars. It's an impressive sum, and one that could probably buy more land and cattle.

This book being about a Red State family, a certain reader might wait, tightly coiled, to read the words Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke or Cliven Bundy. But it's only the final name that appears at all — they think of the famous anti-government rancher mainly as a neighbor, and a smart cattleman. Are the Wrights so studiously small in their thinking? Or is it Branch himself who steers his book into feeling like it's more about people you might have over for dinner than a tough look at how powerful forces emanate from Washington and connect to this iconic Western landscape?

In a powerful moment, a city slicker tries to tell Bill about seeing 30 coyotes (an unlikely number) and when the man offers to shoot the animals for him, Bill sternly demures. "I'd just as soon no one go shooting into the herd of cows," he says.

More interaction with outsiders is on the horizon. In the final scenes Bill is considering a transformation of the ranch — it won't be a pure cattle operation anymore but an incarnation with horses, tents, a big rodeo rink and a lot more tourists.

We don't imagine Branch wants us to think these problems and solutions — the astonishing rodeo success and essential decency of the Wright clan, or their picturesque location beside Zion — would be identical if he had spent a couple of years with another set of ranchers. Certain readers will hunger as well for sharper and more debatable insights about range management and the West.

But what Branch focuses on so beautifully is how one remarkable American family navigates the situation of wanting to do dangerous, peculiar and deeply impressive kinds of work. "All they wanted," Branch writes, "was something much like what their ancestors had done: raise cattle and build something together."

Deuel is a writer in Los Angeles and author of the memoir "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East."

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  (W.W. Norton)

"The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West"

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John Branch

W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $26.95

John Branch author of "The Last Cowboys."
John Branch author of "The Last Cowboys." (Catherine Branch)
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