If you like cattle and cattlemen and enjoy reading about lonely and isolated cowboys fighting demons (internal and weather based), “The Big Drift” is for you. Zeke Boles is a recently freed slave, tearing himself apart for an accident that killed his boss, (who was also his former master), an accident he was not responsible for, but blames himself for. On the run, Zeke stumbles across—and saves the life of—Will Brite, a Slash Five cowboy freezing to death pinned under his crippled horse. Will is also being torn apart by guilt, for something he was forced—by his father—to do as a small child.
We read as these Middle Concho Texans, riding for the Slash Five brand, wrestle with their private demons, prejudice, thieves and murderers. This is all set against the background of the brutal 1884 blizzard, which is just as likely to kill Will and Zeke (it did thousands of cattle) as any of their man-made problems. The Big Drift is not the typical “gun-play” western. As a matter of fact, early on in the book, Will doesn’t even carry a handgun. But there is plenty of action to go along with the personal drama.
The author, Patrick Dearen, was born and raised in Texas (the love of which can be seen in The Big Drift), and like many authors, he started writing in high school, has a significant favorite novel in his past (in this case, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes) and was an award-winning newspaper journalist (for the San Angelo Standard-Times and the Midland-Reporter Telegram) before becoming a full-time author. His twenty books include both fiction and nonfiction books about the Old West.
Many of Dearen’s books (fiction and nonfiction) are informed by the more than seventy oral histories he conducted with old-time cowboys. Both “The Big Drift” and “To Hell or the Pecos” (2014) are Elmer Kelton award winners.
Note: An extended version of this review, along with 51 others, can be found in my book, “52 Weeks * 52 Western Novels.”