Note — “The Ranch Hand” was composed over a two-day span in late November of 2017. Since then I have made several edits to grammar, pronoun use, and interior dialogue to make the piece more suitable for inclusion on ink + sky.
Clad in faded blue denim and a checkered shirt, a slender ranch hand stands with one dusty boot on the lower rung of a fence that corrals a group of horses. While they wander under the mid-day sun their tails swish gently, discouraging flies from settling on their dappled brown and white coats.
The ranch hand has not always worked on this western prairie, one which stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. Prior to arriving out on Colorado’s plains, he spearheaded a touring show that crisscrossed the country for fourteen years. It featured dozens of horses, numerous performers in sequined-costumes, a talented cast of musicians, and an arena full of fences to jump and obstacles to negotiate.
As the tour’s leader, the ranch hand donned a red jacket and black top-hat when he walked out under the grand tent’s lights and introduced the show and its acts. His voice carried resolutely, and audiences leaned forward with anticipation. The lights then dimmed, a spotlight shone, and he proceeded to narrate the stories that his cast spun with horse and rider and rousing score. Every afternoon and evening the shows concluded with hearty applause. The touring troupe performed brilliantly, the stallions pranced with pride, and the clamor of requests for future dates reinforced the performers’ resolve to continue.
This traveling show ran ten months of the year, five days per week, two performances per day. When he was not in front of the crowd, the ranch hand was consulting with veterinarians, negotiating with agents, tending to finances, and smoothing out expected tensions among the acrobats and riders and musicians. It was hard work, but very satisfying. During the two months when the show was dormant, the ranch hand invested time studying other acts, always trying to improve his cast’s choreography, always desiring to give the audience more.
While his show’s success steadily grew during its first decade, he noticed that his peers leading other touring groups were living somewhat different lives. They returned to their communities on the weekends to nurture relationships, build families, tend to homes. Then they boomeranged back out on tour, engaging their audiences with their unique stages and performers and exploits of daring and joy. And the ranch hand, too, went back out excitedly with his crew, making more stops each year, stopping at cities they had not yet visited. But the niggling awareness of his peers’ second-lives remained as an unsettling ghost of what-if.
Then, during the show’s twelfth year on the circuit, at a performance late in the ten-month season, something entirely unexpected occurred to the man now leaning against a rough-hewn fence, gazing at the horses stepping deliberately under the Colorado sun.
The spring evening was perfect. The seats were occupied; an electric buzz of anticipation crackled through the stands; and the smells of buttered popcorn, fresh hay, and cherry soda permeated the air. As the hour of the curtain-raising approached he donned his jacket and hat as he had done so many times before, while containing the butterflies of anticipation that always preceded a performance. From a dim corner of the arena he peered out at the crowd, grinning at the knowledge that he and his performers would put on another satisfying show that night. A full house — and we are ready for them, he whispered to himself.
After the local mayor finished his introduction and the audience settled into its seats, the ranch hand strode out onto the vast dirt floor already dotted with white ramps and colorful flags and a half-dozen performers standing at their posts. He tipped his hat, smiled, accepted the microphone from the mayor, and began his welcome. The opening was smooth, as he knew the words from hundreds of previous deliveries.
But fate chose a different path for the ranch hand that night, and a few minutes into his monologue he felt his chest seize and he lost the ability to breathe. The inhales ceased, and his delivery sputtered to a stop — his warm voice suddenly silenced by a mysterious foe. The crowd around him watched expectantly, leaning forward in their seats. The ranch hand’s chest tightened further, his mind racing with alarm. But his lungs remained stubbornly vacant of air. And then terror swept in.
That night, for the first time in thousands of performances in hundreds of cities, the ranch hand had to leave the stage at the very moment when he had everyone’s attention and was inviting them to embark on a journey through the story that his performers would construct. What is happening? I can’t breathe, his mind cried in shock before he hurried off stage. Although he returned to the spotlight mere minutes later and resumed his delivery, a deep and expansive crack had already snaked through the ranch hand’s confidence and sense of identity. He had faltered, and years of experience and training felt like they fell away in seconds. It was the most devastating moment in his career, though the eager crowd perceived nothing other than a temporary technical glitch.
The rest of that night’s show was a success, but the ranch hand was deeply shaken by this completely unforeseen occurrence. Never in his eleven previous years as the head of a touring show had anything like it occurred before. Unfortunately, that night’s breathless paralysis was not a one-time slip out of character; rather, it was an omen of what was to come. Although the next day’s afternoon performance was flawless, the evening’s show hosted a return of the mysterious malady. Yet again his lungs failed him, he lost his voice, and he departed hastily from the performance floor, his mind reeling in confusion and distress. This can’t be happening again, his terrified conscience cried.
As any responsible showman would do, during the following two-month off-season the ranch hand sought out a respected and experienced consultant to help him process the demoralizing breaks from his otherwise smooth-running on-stage persona. They worked together for the entirety of the next touring season — ten months of meetings and reflecting and soul-searching. That relationship proved rewarding, supplying the ranch hand with both a background of understanding and a range of strategies to employ when the chest-seizing paralysis returned. And it did, unfortunately, return.
The touring show pushed through season number thirteen, and every couple of week the ranch hand found himself caught like a startled deer – frozen at the moments when he most needed to be fluid, relaxed, and responsive in front of the audience. By this point, though, he had learned how to hide the bouts of unannounced terror and paralysis from the onlookers, and he was able to stay on-stage despite the shrieking alarm that echoed through his mind. The ranch hand was managing the dilemma, but he knew that his status as a ring-leader was likely to soon conclude if he could not find a way to eliminate the symptoms or, better yet, root out the cause and remedy it.
By the time the fourteenth season began — over two years since his initial episode of unprovoked panic — the ranch hand knew that he had to break from his routine. He was exhausted from the seven-day work weeks, saddened by acknowledging that his home was empty, and drained by constantly fearing the unannounced return of the throat-clenching immobility that left him feeling ashamed in front of his attentive and respectful audiences. I can’t continue like this, he lamented. So he approached the show’s investors and requested a leave, citing the need to address health issues. They agreed to hire a replacement, and the ranch hand was granted twelve months to escape from the rigors — and, unfortunately, the rewards — of his respected show-on-the-road.
Now, having exchanged the red jacket and black top-hat for a checkered shirt and a weathered Stetson, he leans forward with one foot propped on a fence rail. Over a thousand miles from his home, he peers into the corral that stands before him on a Colorado plain. Contained in its wooden embrace are wild horses, similar to the tamed ones that populated his show. Other than the sounds of their hooves on the dusty hardpack and the indecipherable language of the wind, the scene is largely quiet. Small farmhouses squat in the distance; dirt roads stretch through the terrain; amorphous clouds float sparingly in the broad blue sky.
While he watches the wild horses swish their tails and nod their heads, he hears the phantom sounds of an event coming from the mountains beyond: the buzz of the crowd, the nervous chatter of performers, the snorting of tamed mounts eager for another run around the arena. A show continues this season, but he is not part of it. And on many days, he has a hard time reconciling who he was as the showman and who he is now as a ranch hand in this wide western landscape. They seem like different beings — one so brave and daring and the other so pensive and wary. One inflated with pride and purpose, the other shrunken with resignation and uncertainty.
To make matters more challenging, the ranch hand learned that the investors decided—on the eve of his departure—to deconstruct the show and build another one out of the pieces that he had fashioned with so much care and consideration. The touring extravaganza that he had nurtured was dismantled and reconstituted, but it was not done with an imagination or a sense of vision. Instead, the investors decided to cut out many acts of the original performance: acrobats and cowboys were let go, horses were sold to ranches, sets were destroyed. They never said a word to me; they just went ahead as if I did not even exist, he observed with a mixture of sorrow and betrayal. The audience was the last thing that the investors considered in their eagerness to streamline, save money, and simplify.
Despite these many changes—all of which occurred in secret—the investors kept the name of the touring company intact. So the ranch hand has the misfortune of knowing that a show continues to visit cities across the country, and that it bears a name that no longer adheres to the core commitments to quality, responsiveness, and authenticity on which it was originally built.
Rather than return excitedly to his changing room this evening and enjoy tea with the band’s conductor and the head veterinarian, the ranch hand will stroll back to a small cabin on this plain and dine in solitude. Seated at his table, he may hear the howl of a coyote or the bark of the dog watching over the sheep at the neighboring farm. But there will be no soaring musical score, no gasps from the audience, no clamor of hooves as the costume-clad horses saunter back to their water troughs and evening meals. The ranch hand is not part of the show, and he is left wondering if he ever will be again. The mortifying moments of stage-fright are gone, but the quiet that remains in the wake of fourteen years of showmanship feels like a paralysis all on its own.
If the ranch hand has learned one thing—and he believes that he has learned many—it is that he is not naturally a person who thrives on stage. While he loves the touring show and its cast, he is more suited to a role behind the scenes, one where he can let his intellect and curiosity and reflectiveness add value to the mobile theater. Now he believes that someone else should be donning the red jacket and black top-hat each night.
But he is proud for having worn them for as long as he did, for having pushed himself far beyond where he ever thought possible. And for having cared so deeply about the audience members he met along the way.
Note — The photographs featured above were obtained from Unsplash.com.