The Evil Counterpart of the Cowboy who uses the same skill set to steal livestock, primarily cattle and horses. While livestock thievery is nearly as old as domesticated animals themselves, the Rustler does it wholesale.
There are the two-bit versions, who steal a few cattle to sell for pocket change, but real Rustlers come in two versions:
- 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.
- 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, leaving behind a Determined Widow. Then The Drifter shows up...
Oh and the penalty for Rustling? Hanging.
Usually without the preamble of a trial, but 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. (On the Scottish Border, summary execution was permitted to anyone who caught a raider with the spoil still in his care. They say Western folk are often descendants of Borderers...)
- Just about any western featuring a Cattle Drive has at least one rustler.
- Louis L'Amour was fond of this as a plotline in his books.
- 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.
- The Disney animated movie Home on the Range has a yodeling rustler as the main villain.
- "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.
- The song "Hangman's Boogie", as performed by the Cowboy Copas, is from the viewpoint of a condemned rustler.
- In A Town Like Alice stealing unbranded calves was almost a game and rival ranchers would joke about it.
- 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 the Desert Wind 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 two great status markers in pre-Anglo Irish society were how many cows you had stolen and how many men you had killed.
- 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.
- The Cowboys has a group of these as the main villains (and plot of the second half of the film), targetting the main characters' herd because their only guardians are an old man and a bunch of children. Their leader is exceptionally creepy.