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The Rustler

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The Evil Counterpart of the Cowboy who uses the same skill set—riding, roping, and herding—to steal livestock, primarily cattle and horses. While livestock thievery is nearly as old as domesticated animals themselves, the Rustler does it wholesale, stealing large numbers of animals.

There are the two-bit versions, who steal a few cattle to sell for pocket change, but real Rustlers come in two versions:

  1. Hit and Run: This is essentially an action packed attack on a herd of cattle (often on a Cattle Drive or during a Round-Up). The Rustlers stampede the cattle, shooting their guns, often killing or injuring the Heroes, and then the Rustlers round up the largest bunch of cattle, and start their own Cattle Drive — sometimes towards Mexico. This is the open highway banditry version.
  2. Rebranding: This is more of a mystery version. Cattle are disappearing from the ranch, more than can be explained by mountain lions, wolves, and Indians. Essentially one of the other ranchers in the area is stealing cattle by pasting their brand over the top of the rightful owners' brand. Expect talk about using a "running iron" and for particularly skilled re-branders the use of a Saddle Bag cinch ring.

Of course, it shouldn't be that difficult to figure out who is stealing as the new brand has to be close to the old brand so that it can cover it up. (For example, covering a "Lazy S" brand with a "Lazy 8" brand — you just extend the S to turn it into an 8). Sometimes there are so many brands running around that there are multiple suspects. The definitive proof is usually killing a cow with a suspicious brand, skinning it, and looking at the hide from the inside. (Somehow you can tell). Of course, both the innocent and the guilty tend to protest the killing of their cattle.

Sometimes everybody knows what is going on, but the rebranding keeps it from being open theft, and people live with it because the thief either has political connections, or has hired The Gunslinger as his Dragon. Sometimes both. Often a Determined Homesteader or Lone Rancher stood up to him and got himself killed. Then The Drifter shows up...


Oh, and the penalty for Rustling? In most Western fiction, to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead, possibly without the preamble of a trial; still, in more law-abiding communities they do haul them in to go before a Hanging Judge, and a jury made up of Townsmen and Cowboys.

Pretty much always villains in a Western. Compare Evil Poacher, or Roguish Poacher, if the rustlers are meant to be sympathetic and the Cattle Baron the villain. For Science Fiction rustlers, see Aliens Steal Cattle.


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     Comic Books  

  • An early Lucky Luke story had horses stolen during a Round-Up, their brand "-3" being changed to "4B".
  • "Hank" of the "Death Patrol" (a feature appearing in Military Comics) was a rustler before he was convinced to sign up to fight Nazis as a fighter pilot.
  • Preacher: Jesse Custer, Tulip and Amy got offered a part in a rustling operation led by a cowboy called B.W. Langtree. Working for a French gourmand called Napoleon Vichy, the objective was to smuggle horses to Europe to satisfy the demand for horse meat in the old continent. Jesse refused to be part and instead went to seek the help from an old sheriff from a nearby town. After Jesse successfully lead the captured horses away in a stampede, killing Langtree in the process. Then he captured Vichy and taught him a lesson in Texas history: as stated in the blurb, stealing horses was one of the most serious crimes in the Wild West and deserving of one punishment. Jesse then strung the Frenchman up from a hanging tree.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: "The Legend of Rainbow and Stardust!": At his daughter's urging Hard Candy tells Diana and the Heyday sisters the tale of some rustlers who tried to steal livestock from the Bar-L only for the eponymous oddly intelligent wild horses to alert the Candy family in time for them to prevent the theft.

     Film - Animated  

     Film - Live Action  

  • Just about any western featuring a Cattle Drive has at least one rustler.
  • Many Australian Bushrangers started out as horse rustlers, including the real life outlaws Ned Kelly, The Outlaw Michael Howe, Captain Thunderbolt and Mad Dog Morgan. Unlike their American counterparts, Aussie horse thieves were often portrayed as Robin Hood type heroes who stole from the wealthy ranchers and bankers to feed impoverished Irish Determined Homesteader families.
  • In Babe, the Hoggett's sheep are rustled a number of times.
  • In the John Wayne film Chisum, John Chisum has to deal with rustlers on his property, who were hired by his rival Lawrence Murphy.
  • The Cowboys has a group of these as the main villains (and plot of the second half of the film), targeting the main characters' herd because their only guardians are an old man and a bunch of children. Their leader is exceptionally creepy.
  • In Curse of the Undead, Buffer's henchmen are stealing cattle from the Carter ranch as part of Buffer's scheme to drive the Carters of their land.
  • Hang 'Em High is a Clint Eastwood western where, prior to the start of the movie, a rustler kills the owner of a large herd, poses as the rightful owner, and sells the herd to Eastwood's character. When friends of the murdered owner catch up with Eastwood, they decide that Eastwood must be the rustler and attempt to hang him.
  • In The Man from Kangaroo, 'Red Jack' Braggan is rustling cattle from the surrounding stations and driving them on to the station where he is overseer, where they are rebranded.
  • San Antonio: Cattle rustling has been raised to organized crime syndicate level, as Roy Stuart has built an empire and rendered much of west Texas lawless, with a large-scale operation in which he steals cattle, takes them to Mexico, and takes them back across the border elsewhere to be sold.
  • Secrets has husband-and-wife cattle ranchers batting evil cattle rustlers, a confrontation that ends with the rustlers besieging the heroes' ranch house in a violent shootout.
  • In The Terror of Tiny Town, Bat Haines is rustling cattle from both the Lawson and Preston ranches as part of a scheme to start a range war.
  • Tombstone Rashomon: According to the Earp faction, the Cowboys are a gang of rustlers. Ike Clanton claims that he and his companions are honest ranchers.note 

  • A cowboy walks into town and sees a gallows being built. He asks who it's for.
    Sheriff: Tomorrow, we're hanging Brown Paper Pete.
    Cowboy: What kind of name is that?
    Sheriff: We call him that because he wears a brown paper hat, brown paper shirt, brown paper pants, and brown paper shoes. Even his spurs are brown paper.
    Cowboy: Well, what's he being hanged for?
    Sheriff: Rustlin'.


  • In A Town Like Alice stealing unbranded calves was almost a game and rival ranchers would joke about it.
  • The Cattle Raid of Cooley starts with Queen Medb raiding Ulster to steal its prize bull, so she can have one like her husband's and be truly equal in wealth. Unfortunately for her, Cooley's cattle are guarded by Cú Chulainn, meaning actually taking the bull is easier said than done...
  • Rustlers often appear in the novels of J.T. Edson. Edson preferred to use the term 'cow thief' (one novel is even titled The Cow Thieves) which he claimed was the term in common use at the time.
  • Louis L'Amour was fond of this as a plotline in his books.
  • Martín Fierro: This book has three examples:
    • At song III of the first part, Fierro denounces the Indians as rustlers of the cattle as part of the Malón.
    • At song XII of the first part, Fierro admits that him and Sergeant Cruz stole some cattle when they decided to go to Injun Country.
    • The most archetypical Rustler is found at the Second Part, at song XIV to song XVIII, el viejo viscacha (Old man viscacha, an argentinian rodent), an old man who is a two bit villain, Evil Counterpart of the cowboy.
  • The Rudyard Kipling poem "The Lament of the Border Cattle Thief" is Exactly What It Says on the Tin: the aforementioned thief has been captured, but promises that he will escape and wreak further havoc.
  • The Steel Bonnets, being about the Anglo-Scottish Border region, naturally talks a great deal about rustlers—whole clans' worth of them.

     Live Action TV  

  • Badger: In "Blood Ties", a violent gang are rustling hill sheep and slaughtering them to sell the meat on the clandestine market. McCabe tries to track down the rustlers by hiding himself in their van during their next raid, and guiding the police task force to the illegal slaughterhouse by radio.
  • Hill Street Blues, despite being set in the heart of a major city, had a one-episode subplot about someone rustling cattle. Only a single steer in this case, but nevertheless impressive in that he'd not only stolen it from a local kosher slaughterhouse but somehow smuggled it some distance across town and up several flights of stairs into his apartment without being caught until someone called in a noise complaint. The responding officers stop finding it funny when they realise they're now responsible for getting the damn thing out of the apartment and back to its rightful owners.


  • The song "Hangman's Boogie", as performed by the Cowboy Copas, is from the viewpoint of a condemned rustler.

     Tabletop Games  

     Video Games  

  • Cattle raids are a regular occurrence in the tribal societies portrayed in King of Dragon Pass and its Spiritual Successor Six Ages.
  • There are several story missions in Red Dead Redemption II where Arthur assists one of the other gang members in rustling a herd of sheep or cows, and after unlocking the fence who buys stolen animals Arthur can also bring them horses or cattle on his own. It's entertaining though it doesn't pay especially well.

     Western Animation  

  • Sheep rustling is central to the plot of A Close Shave. No, really, the one with Wallace & Gromit.
  • The Brady Kids: In "Give Me a Home Where the Panda Bears Roam and the Dog and the Mynah Bird Play," the kids discover that the cattle herd they are supposed to be taking on a Cattle Drive consists of one cow. However, it is marked for rustling by two grizzled old-timers, Sagebrush and Tumbleweed.
  • The Legend of Korra features an episode in which new Airbender acolytes encounter a rather brutish man hoping to snatch their Sky-Bison herd and sell them for meat.
  • Played with in an episode of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The denizens of a frontier town are terrified of the "horse thieves" who are on their way. When they arrive, they actually turn out to be horses, who are professional thieves.

     Real Life  

  • In Real Life history rustling was often considered a sort of gentleman's crime in many times and places; kind of a cross between sport and war.
    • The richest bedouin leaders were usually the most successful rustlers.
    • John Glubb's original Warriors of Desert Winds originally were recruited from men who had gotten their training in desert "rustling matches" before they enlisted. Often both as victim and as rustler at different times.
    • The Highland Scots had similar habits, unsurprisingly. Later on, they preferred to steal English cattle, though. Even so, many long-running feuds between clans are traceable to (often mutual) accusations of cattle rustling.
    • The two great status markers in pre-Anglo Irish society were how many cows you had stolen and how many men you had killed. Indeed, most 'wars' in Old Ireland were more large-scale rustling raids than anything else. Heck, even the famous Cú Chulainn got in on the act; change the setting from Ulster to Texas, the characters from monarchs and warriors to cattle barons and cowboys, and the weapons from spears to six-shooters and The Cattle Raid of Cooley becomes a Western.
  • Following up on the above, it should be noted that neither cattle rustling nor horse theft were ever legally punishable by death in the Wild West or anywhere else in the USA. However, in the American West, stealing a man's horse was tantamount to a death sentence in many areas, and stealing his cattle almost as damaging, so the law that did exist tended to look the other way when ranchers took matters into their own hands. Further, on the Scottish Border, summary execution was permitted to anyone who caught a raider with the spoil still in his care. And as Jim Webb notes in his excellent book Born Fighting, Western folk are often descendants of Borderers....
  • In modern times, rustling is done via customized trucks, and the rustlers are more interested in the (illegal) insurance money than the cattle itself.
    • Occasionally, thieves will bypass stealing the whole animal altogether, and steal frozen bull semen after it's collected: a commodity that can potentially be worth thousands of dollars a batch, from a champion.
    • High-quality beef like Kobe and Wagyu are valuable enough to be worth stealing, or fraudulently switching out for lower-grade meat on the sly. In the US alone, several times more "Kobe" beef is sold in upscale restaurants than is produced in Japan. A great deal of this is due to the US not recognizing Kobe beef as a valid trademark.