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

Branch captures the excitement, danger and drudgery of life on the rodeo circuit, as the Wright boys chase the large and little wins that will, with luck, take them to the finals and the big money. Riders need to stay on their horses for eight seconds and maintain proper form while doing so.

Rider and animal are judged simultaneously on a scale that adds up to Scores above 90 are rare, but one above 80 usually puts the rider in the money. Too much, and the rider exited off the back or got jerked to the side.

Why the Wrights

Branch shows that there is plenty of unpredictability in riding. As they crisscross the West in gigantic, fossil-fuel-guzzling vehicles, no one in the Wright clan seems to give much thought as to how their businesses affect climate change or other environmental maladies — and even contribute to the very drought that challenges their finances. Branch does not seem to press such questions.

The 'Last Cowboys' Of The New American West | On Point

Bill, Evelyn, Cody, his wife ShaRee and other family members are drawn with precision and empathy. As Cody and his kids work to dominate the top rankings in the rodeo finals and Bill struggles to maintain the ranch, the story generates genuine suspense.

Michael Berry is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley. Email: books sfchronicle.

The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West

Photo: Norton. Caption Close. It was branding day for the Wrights.

The Last Cowboy Song

While most of the family pitched in — tagging, branding, inoculating and castrating the calves — the youngest kids played around the camp. One minute, three-year-old Cruz was on top of a yellow pony, and the next, he had landed face-first on the ground.

It was a serious injury: the boy was airlifted to Salt Lake City, put into an induced coma and placed on a breathing machine, and taken into surgery. Their tale is gripping and original. Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New York Times , spent more than three years getting to know this unusual clan. He takes his job as head rancher seriously — sleeping for much of the year in an old camper, so as to keep a close eye on the animals, and starting the day with nothing but a hardboiled egg, speared from a jar of vinegar and hot sauce.