The Mexican vaquero says if during a difficult journey you want to know if your horse is finished, dismount and pull his tail. If he resists, count on him to continue.

We’ve all been down from illness, defeat, or humiliation, but most of the time it’s not hard to rise again. Usually it only means that our external and internal sores have healed, a rival has left town, the bank account has been replenished, or a humiliation has lost enough sting that we can face society again. Work can be curative, too. To catch a wild bovine 20 loops in a row while riding so fast the eyes water will cheer a person enough to forget the time he got bucked off in front of all the dudes.

A lucky victory is all that’s necessary to comeback from small defeats, because bad-luck setbacks are reversed by moments of good luck. And life is mostly small defeats and small victories. But when a big defeat truly crushes the heart, a comeback might not be possible for a long, long time. Sometimes, the only way to come back is for a person to find a new talent inside himself, because our usual talents keep coming up short.

People who make their living with cattle and horses have long set the example for all Americans on how to make a comeback. The ability to look up and keep going in hard times, when good luck is nowhere to be found, seems to be rooted in the genes of people who make their living with land and livestock. Sooner or later, every farmer and every stockman finds himself broke and short of prospects, yet calamity doesn’t put this kind of man into his grave. He gets up, cinches up, and gets back to work, even if he has to start over as a woodcutter.

Two great examples are a man named Eddie Fast and his son Tuck. Eddie’s second wife divorced him before their son was born, and the boy enjoyed the luck of a healthy birth into his mother’s prominent family. However, the people in that family were not the kind Tuck wanted to be.

For the first 38 years of his life, Tuck felt that his family blamed his faults on Eddie’s genes, but those very genes gave him the heart to endure hardships and gave him the gumption to believe in himself when nobody else did.

Tuck went out for team sports but rode the bench. His mother’s people were intellectual achievers, but his grades were only passing. He joined no clubs. His assets were robust health, good size and strength, a fine head of hair, an open sense of humor, and a deep, bass voice.

During his childhood he won one personal victory every year by riding a yearling in his hometown’s Pioneer Days Boy’s Rodeo. None of his popular, firststring, girl-smart, high-grade schoolmates had the guts for that. They watched and laughed when Tuck got bucked off but never considered climbing on and taking hold of an animal themselves.

Tuck never owned a hat to lose, and his hair stood on end when he rode, but every ride gave his heart a victory. None of his cowpuncher relatives on his father’s side knew him, and nobody in his mother’s family ever called him a cowboy, but something made him contest a calf every year.

One other talent did sustain him through his boyhood, though. Tuck could draw. He liked to caricature his fellows with pencil and paper, yet he didn’t consider this diversion to be anybody else’s business. So he threw the sketches away.

He knew he had talent for subject, line, color, and design, and after he graduated from high school, he wanted to go to art school. But his grandfather told him art school was for perverts. So, Tucker found work as a hod carrier, lugging brick for masons.

Eddie gave nothing to his son’s upbringing. The father would come to consider this his worst failure as a man and a catastrophe for the boy. Does the cowboy exist who doesn’t believe that the best help he can give his son is to teach him to ride and turn back a cow? Anyone who ever made a good horse loves to make a good son. Yet Tuck’s mother’s family erected a barricade against Eddie that was so formidable that he didn’t meet the boy, or see a photo of him, until he was ten.

Eddie owned a cattle ranch in northeastern Arizona. One day the little boy telephoned him and asked if he could pay a visit. Eddie flew his airplane to Prescott, loaded him, and headed back to the ranch.

Cruising at 8,000 feet, he showed Tuck how to maintain altitude and direction, gave him the controls, climbed in the back seat and feigned sleep. He watched the ten-year-old take hold of the roaring machine all alone. The only sign of fear Tuck showed was the little gulp he made when Eddie handed him the yoke.

Eddie and his wife and friends loved him quick and enjoyed him a lot. Christmas was near and everybody gave him money. He buried it in his deepest pocket and guarded it like a mother cow does her newborn.

Eddie began making a show of trying to separate Tuck from his money as they rode together after cattle. He “tried” to win it in small bets, asked him for a loan, tried to sell him a sight-unseen horse and take his money as a down payment. No deal. Tuck intended to keep that money. He’d known droughty days.

When his vacation was over, Eddie flew Tuck back to Prescott. Eddie only saw Tuck once more when he was a boy. At 14, Tuck traveled to Tucson with his gymnastics team, and Eddie picked him up at his motel. They ate lunch at the Santa Rita hotel and went to see horses Eddie had bought for the ranch. The boy looked at his feet the whole time and spoke hardly a word. He perked up when he saw the horses, otherwise Tuck kept all personal news, feelings, and opinions to himself. After that bust of a visit Eddie figured he would never see his son again.

Eddie chose to believe that Tuck was being given everything he needed. He decided the boy’s grandfather was a fine mentor for him. Eddie admired the man and felt sure that he and Tuck were great partners. Tuck’s mother was a highly educated, respected, and devoutly religious professional. Eddie was sure that no one in this world could have a better mother.

Truth is, every time Tuck did wrong, the mother and grandfather reminded him how much he had become like Eddie: a “worthless cowboy who would never amount to a hill of beans.” Eddie trade in Mexican cattle every winter, and 24 years after that brief afternoon visit in Tucson, Tuck called to ask if he could visit again. Eddie was about to leave for Mexico, so father invited son to go with him. Tuck came on.

The 500-mile drive to Rio Mayo, Sonora, was a perfect way for the two men to get reacquainted. The only trouble was that all Tuck could talk about was concrete. When Eddie asked him if he had ever married, he found out that Tuck’s dedication to concrete had probably caused the failure of his five-year engagement to a California girl. When Eddie asked what he did for fun, he discovered that Tuck seemed to bury that in concrete, too. After he graduated from hod carrier to cement mixer, then to cement finisher, his life had gotten all mixed up in concrete. When Eddie asked him what else he’d learned, Tuck reported that he’d taught himself to sculpt concrete.

Eddie said, “Son, it’s no wonder you’ve never married. I’ve heard nothing but concrete since we left Arizona. What girl would put up with all that concrete?”

“Dad,” Tuck said, “that girl has probably never been born.”

The Fasts had cowboy work to do in Rio Mayo. Tuck hadn’t been near a cow since he visited Eddie’s ranch decades earlier, but he took hold of the work as if he’d done it every day of his life. They didn’t have horses, but eight little kids helped them brand, castrate, and vaccinate a corral full of cattle every day. Tuck had grown from a skinny kid into a 38-year-old, six-footer with legs and shoulders as hard and thick as his favorite building material.

Afoot, Eddie roped the cattle one by one and handed them to Tuck, like tying onto a rank bull with a 1,400- pound quarter horse. While Tuck held the head, Eddie caught the heels with another rope and handed it to his gang of kids. While five kids held the heels off the ground and Tuck held down the head, the other boys brought the branding iron, knife, and syringe.

Eddie was proud of the way his son took hold, but not surprised. Tuck only proved that he’d been born to cow work. About seven generations of American cowboy ancestors backed him up, so it was certainly in his blood.

Every morning, before they went to the corrals, Eddie worked at his tally book and used the telephone for two hours in the motel room. He noticed that Tuck also worked with pencil and tablet. Eddie thought he was keeping a journal, but one day Tuck went out of the room ahead of him, and Eddie looked in the tablet.

Tuck had drawn caricature-portraits of the gang of boys that displayed all the awkwardness, handsomeness, character, innocence, and sweetness of each boy with astounding clarity. “Tucker Fast, what have you done with this talent?” Eddie asked. “You’re an artist.” “Nothing, Dad. I only fool around with it,” he said. “I wanted to go to art school, but my grandfather said art was unmanly, so I gave it up.” “I can’t tell you what to do, Son,” Eddie said. “But when you get back to Prescott, please enroll in an arts course at Yavapai College. If you can’t pay for it, I will, but please do it.”

Tuck did enroll, paid his own way through two semesters, and when his instructors and classmates entered their pencil sketches in the county fair after the first year, he won the blue ribbon. The next year, he accomplished the same with paints, and his art had hooked him. He has never again been able to leave it alone since.

To win time to paint, he worked out of a labor pool. And when construction work was not available, he worked as a caregiver for elderly people in their homes. One day, he was assigned to the home of a 90-year-old artist named Mark Coomer. The man had been a successful painter using an innovative technique. His career had stalled, so Tuck, being as strong as he was, carried Coomer up the stairs every day to his second-floor studio so he could work again.

They became good friends, and when Coomer asked to see Tuck’s work, he liked it immediately. He became Tuck’s mentor and gave him paints, brushes, and canvases. He gave him encouragement and taught him his own technique. To his surprise, Tuck seemed born to the method.

You see, Coomer used brushes sparingly. Most of his work was done with “knives”—tiny artists’ trowels. Tuck, a mason of long experience, could handle a trowel as well with his left hand as he could with his right. He showed his first paintings and made his first sale at the age of 47.

Tuck is now engaged to marry a cowgirl who grew up calling Eddie her “Pappy,” the granddaughter of Eddie’s late cowpuncher-partner Del Brooks. And Eddie and Tucker Fast dream of owning a cow ranch together. Eddie is almost 80 and Tuck is almost 50. It’s never too late for a comeback.

J.P.S. Brown has written more than ten novels about cowboys in the American West and Mexico.

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