ATLANTA, GA—Officials from the Centers For Disease Control said Monday that preliminary results from a long-term study showed that the vast majority of America's cowboys suffer from Restless Heart Syndrome, a disorder categorized by deep pangs of yearning, usually following extended, alternating bouts of lethargy and wanderlust.
"It's likely that most victims don't even know they have it," said research coordinator Grant Richardson, who estimates that 90 percent of cowboys are carriers of the malady. "Then one day they're staring into a glass of whiskey while the bartender sweeps the cigarette butts off the floor, and they get to wondering about what there is to find in the next town West of wherever they happen to be. After that, something changes inside them."
Researchers isolated a hormone in nearly all of the 500 cowboys studied that triggers a subconscious longing for the feel of a saddle and the sight of windswept plains as far as a body can see.
"Next thing they know, they're tipping their hat down low, pulling up their boots, and heading off in the direction of them twinklin' stars," Richardson said.
RHS seems to strike most often in younger ranch hands who have been restricted to the same patch of land for six months or more without being able to take long rides in God's country, where the coyotes prowl the sagebrush. Some cowboys also experience severe symptoms after taking just one whiff of old paint.
Nor does the disorder appear to be a new phenomenon. After studying hundreds of tattered letters and mournful ballads, researchers determined that RHS has been afflicting cowboys since the mid-1800s, when the West was still wild and a tumbleweed could still be blown across the plains from St. Louis to Frisco without hittin' a fence.
A significant number of cases appear to be triggered by an undersupply of love from a good woman. If detected early, however, RHS can be treated.
"If any cowboys find themselves experiencing unfamiliar emotions for which there just ain't no words, or an impulse to gaze up and wonder if she's watching the same sun set over Texas—home to more than 95 percent of cowboys' exes—I would urge them to swallow their pride, and come on in to see doc immediately."
Cowboy Sam Parker said he has been suffering the effects of RHS for "purt' near as long as [he] can recollect."
"Once I've been off the trail for a piece, my heart gets a wanderin' to thoughts of my darlin', sweet Annabelle—who couldn't marry me on account of her pa not approvin'," Parker said, subconsciously clutching his 10-gallon hat. "A man can only stand so much before he gets a hankerin' to set off with no one but his thoughts, his horse and 300 head of cattle. I don't care one bit if it means eatin' bacon and beans every day and every night."
Many pediatricians who believe RHS manifests in early childhood have been counseling mothers to consider whether or not they should allow their babies to grow up to be cowboys, who will never stay home and are always alone, sadly, even with someone they love.
Leading epidemiologists say their goal is to contain the disease, which has no known cure, before it progresses to a more serious form such as Aching Heart Syndrome, Burning Heart Syndrome, or Trail's End Disease.
"The worst part is that many of these taciturn, weather-beaten men don't want to be healed—you can't throw a cowboy's heart in the hoosegow," said cowboy counselor and RHS sufferer Sam Langley. "And the problem is, they ain't wrong. They're just different. And their hearts won't let 'em do things to make you think it's right."