The Rustler: A Tale of Love and War in Wyoming

The Rustler: A Tale of Love and War in Wyoming

by Frances McElrath

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Published in the spring of 1902, the same year as The Virginian, Frances McElrath's novel The Rustler enjoyed only brief success before fading from public memory. While The Virginian has indisputably served as the model for the genre of the Western, The Rustler remains virtually unknown.

Although both novels were inspired by the


Published in the spring of 1902, the same year as The Virginian, Frances McElrath's novel The Rustler enjoyed only brief success before fading from public memory. While The Virginian has indisputably served as the model for the genre of the Western, The Rustler remains virtually unknown.

Although both novels were inspired by the Johnson County massacre, The Rustler is an account sympathetic to the perspective of the small cattleman, while The Virginian takes the part of the large cattle operations. Both novels also address, with differing conclusions, the clash between the independent Western man and the genteel Eastern woman.

In this story of the stoic, competent, and fiercely independent cowboy Jim and his ill-fated love for the beautiful Hazel Clifford, McElrath offers an alternative view of the West and the standard marriage plot. In contrast to The Virginian, The Rustler points to the vulnerability of the cowboy ethos and a different sort of redemption for the frivolous Eastern woman. The Rustler is also a significant example of the connection between popular and literary traditions whereby sentimentalism, the Western, and a feminist perspective converge in surprising and fascinating ways.

Editorial Reviews

Historical Novels Review

"Bittersweet love and tragic range war in the 1890's Wyoming enthrall and inform in this tale built upon true facts. . . . [McElrath] brings to this sweaty, testosterone driven western an educated feminist view of the West."—Meredith Campbell, Historical Novels Review

— Meredith Campbell

Historical Novels Review - Meredith Campbell

"Bittersweet love and tragic range war in the 1890's Wyoming enthrall and inform in this tale built upon true facts. . . . [McElrath] brings to this sweaty, testosterone driven western an educated feminist view of the West."—Meredith Campbell, Historical Novels Review

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UNP - Bison Books
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The Rustler

A Tale of Love and War in Wyoming

By Frances McElrath, Edward Willard Deming


Copyright © 2002 University of Nebraska Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9026-6


Hazel Meets Jim

"You do wrong in thinking that in settling down you would be giving up your entire freedom, dearest Hazel; I should —"

Hazel Clifford's eyes wandered down the sheet of crested notepaper she was holding, and sighting nothing of a more interesting nature she returned the letter to its envelope and tucked it into the pocket of her riding-habit with a light yawn.

"When Horace begins on the subject of my freedom, he's apt to become a bore," she said to herself.

Just then she chanced to look over the edge of the cut-bank along which her horse was slowly walking and she saw Jim.

Jim, in the flat below, a moment previous had dismounted from his horse. He chanced to glance upward the same instant the girl looked down. Their eyes met, and that was the beginning of all things.

The unexpected glance held the two pairs of eyes, brown above, gray below, for a long minute. Both pairs were fine eyes — the cut-bank was high, tho not so high but that they could see into each other quite distinctly. All at once, with sudden self-consciousness, the gaze was simultaneously withdrawn.

"Upon my word!" thought Hazel, flushing displeasedly, "the presumption of Dick's foreman! Staring at me like that!"

She administered an indignant touch of the whip which started her horse on faster.

For a brief instant Jim experienced a vague surprise at having exchanged a long mutual glance with the young lady who was visiting the ranch. Then he quite forgot the circumstance and turned his attention to the work from which he had been momentarily diverted.

Along the cut-bank beneath which Jim was standing was the bed of an old creek that had become miry during the recent spring rains and a cow had sunk in the mud. She was in a weak condition after the meager supply of food to be found on the range in the winter, and had no strength with which to work her way out.

Jim, taking his rope, waded into the mire. He sunk knee-deep in the mud, and his boots were filling by the time he reached the cow. She lay helpless and unresisting, and he securely tied the rope about her horns and waded laboriously out again. Then he fastened the loose end of the rope about the horn of his saddle and mounting his horse started him.

"Gee up, Whitefoot!" he said.

Whitefoot, intelligently familiar with the business in hand, strained pluckily forward and with a few sharp jerks brought the cow out onto dry land. Jim dismounted and untied the rope about her horns. She lay where she had been dragged with her neck along the ground, making no effort to get up. Unassisted she would never get up, but would lie right there and die. So Jim must get her up.

Jim retreated some little distance from the cow, then uttering a rousing yell he came rushing up to her. The cow, surprised, made a staggering attempt to lift her hind-quarters, and Jim, aided by this slight self-help, seized her by the tail and set her firmly upon her feet. The cow, suddenly realizing her capability of making an attack, turned fiercely on her rescuer, and Jim ran for his life to his horse.

Once upon the horse's back, the race was over. The cow, understanding the futility of pursuing a horseman, stopped abruptly and commenced to nibble the fresh young grass, and Jim, leaving her thus employed, galloped off eastward a few miles to where the spring roundup was in progress.

Hazel, her chin still high, peeped around after she had ridden on a few paces. The look was given in all cautiousness, as she did not intend to encounter the foreman's strong eyes again, and she presumed that he was still staring at her. However, Jim, supremely oblivious to her existence, was deep in his work.

Hazel brought her horse to a slow walk so that she could look back and watch the maneuvers with the cow, which she did with interest and curiosity.

It was one of the commonplace, everyday occurrences of range life, that a cowboy would have scoffed at as containing an element of bravery, but Hazel regarded Jim's broad shoulders as he galloped away with suddenly awakened admiration.

"He really risked his life for that old cow!" she said.

She continued her ride for a way along the bank, then turned westward across a bit of broken country, and finally descended into the flat beyond.

It was an hour before sunset and the prairie covered with new grass was bright in the yellow light. The sunshine burnished the logs of the corrals and buildings of the ranch which nestled in the lee of the hills. Beyond the array of corrals and barns stood the two dwelling-houses of the ranch — the bunk-house, and the private house of the owner, Mr. Richard Clifford.

Mrs. Richard Clifford, fresh in pink muslin, was seated in a steamer-chair on the shady side of the house reading a novel when Hazel's horse came over the hill. Mrs. Clifford was fifteen years Hazel's senior. She was a rather pretty, conventional little woman with a crisp appearance as if she had just stepped out of a bandbox. She eyed Hazel critically as she came toward her. Hazel's seat was faultless, and with her fine shoulders and slight, well-rounded figure she looked her best on a horse. Her skin was pure and fair and glowed with health, and her hair was a wealth of auburn waves.

Hazel's was no ordinary beauty. Mrs. Clifford recognized that fact, and she frowned a soft little frown of perplexity, until remembering that frowns make wrinkles, she abruptly smoothed her brow and shook her head instead, as if she would shake out the problem that was agitating it.

"I can not understand Hazel," she said to herself. "She's not a bit like my sister May. She's got twice May's color and vivacity, yet I really believe she prefers spending the summer out on this forsaken-looking Montana prairie, poking about the hills on a horse, to going to Newport."

"You must make haste and change, Hazel," she said as Hazel came up. "Dick and dinner are almost ready."

Hazel slipped to the ground and flung the reins over the horse's head, in accordance with what she had learned was ranch custom, and hurried into the house.

A little later she emerged spotlessly white. She looked very pretty in the white gown, but apparently the effort of putting it on had annoyed her. There was a pucker on her brow.

"I can't see the use," she remarked as she took the hammock beside Ida's chair, "of dressing out here for dinner. There's nobody to see one."

Ida's well-formed brows arched surprisedly.

"Oh, you, of course, dear," said Hazel. "I mean no men."

Mrs. Clifford drew a dignified breath.

"Well, Hazel," she replied, "I can not see how that makes any possible difference. We dress for dinner on the ranch because as ladies we're accustomed to do so at home. Besides, there's your cousin Dick."

"Yes, there's Dick," agreed Hazel, as that individual, fresh in white duck, appeared in the doorway. "Dick," she added abruptly, "why don't you ever invite your foreman to dinner?"

"Why?" said Dick with a surprised smile, "Jim?"


Dick went off a few yards to where Hazel's horse was standing and removed the saddle and bridle. "Why, Jim," — he observed as he brought the saddle in under the veranda and hung it across the saddle-bar, — "Jim's hardly a diner-out."

"Have you ever asked him to come?" persisted Hazel, as she and Ida rose at the sound of the bell.

"Can't say that I have," replied Dick.

"Poor fellow! I expect he'd appreciate it."

Dick gave a little laugh.

"It's much more probable that he'd appreciate eating his dinner with the other boys," he said. "I doubt very much whether he'd come if I did ask him."

"Who is Jim, anyway?" Hazel inquired as they took their seats at the dinner-table.

"Jim?" repeated Dick. "Why Jim's Jim! He's the best foreman and all-around cowman on the range. He's a Texan by birth, and he knows the range country from Mexico to Canada, and he knows the cattle trade from A to Z. He's up-to-date in all his methods and is as loyal as a patriot to the company. He's a determined man, almost so to a fault. If he sets out to do a thing he'd knock up every horse and man on the ranch, himself included, rather than give it up. He's a silent, hardworking fellow, afraid of nothing. He's been on the range ever since he was able to sit a horse, I expect, and he's gotten pretty hard tanned."

Hazel had listened to this description attentively. It sounded interesting. Jim's acquaintance ought to be included in the novel features of her ranch experience. She recalled the rescue of the cow and the look of his strong eyes. Dick's praises of his foreman increased her desire to eat and talk with him.

"I think, Dick," she said coaxingly, "we really ought to have Jim in to dinner."


The Roundup Dinner

Tips sat in the ranch kitchen. He had ridden over from the roundup with Jim, who wanted to see Mr. Clifford on business.

The kitchen was roasting hot and hazy with the smoke of boiling fat. The cook was frying doughnuts. Outside, the morning was fresh and comparatively cool, but Tips preferred the heat indoors for the obvious reason that the two Clifford ladies were strolling about the ranch enclosure, and Tips — four feet six in his boots — was, or fancied himself to be, a woman-hater.

Inspired by the unusual occurrence of ladies at the ranch, he was giving utterance to his sentiments, much to the entertainment of Billy, the cook.

"Women," observed Tips, planting his diminutive, high-heeled boots on the table, and chipping off a bit from his square of horseshoe, and stopping to remember just how Jim did it before depositing it in his mouth, — "women may be all very well in their place, but their place ain't on the range nor anywheres near it!"

Tips had a vague conception of some distant spot of earth designed exclusively for the accommodation of the female sex.

"Women," he went on, quoting his elders in his shrill, piping little voice, — "women can stir up a row where there ain't nothin' on earth but sagebrush and ant-hills to do it with! Women are hully-gees for stirrin' up rows! Tell you what, I don't want to have no truck with 'em!"


Tips's feet descended to the floor with a thump. Jim had spoken from the doorway.

"Tips," he said, "hook Red and Dandy to the buckboard. You're to drive Miss Clifford out to the wagon."

The cook grinned. Tips faced about sharply with an inexpressible expression of countenance, but Jim had gone off abruptly toward the stable fence where his horse was waiting to carry him back to the roundup.

Tips uttered some things not pretty as a relief to his feelings. Then he said, "S'long!" to Billy and sauntered nonchalantly off for the horses. Three-quarters of an hour later, when he had leisurely caught them up and harnessed them into the buckboard, Hazel Clifford was waiting at the door.

Tips drew his team up with a loud "Whoa!" He looked straight at the horses and squeezed himself into the far corner of the seat as the young lady got in.

As they started Hazel regarded her companion interestedly. He was a poor, squat little figure, fairly lost in the man's shirt and overalls enveloping him. The huge, turned-down shirt-collar displayed a glimpse of throat pink as a baby's, with a sharp dividing-line above which his face was a deep tan. A Stetson with its four conventional dents covered a crop of short ringlets so soft and golden a mother's heart would have yearned over them.

Hazel wondered what manner of boy this prairie lad might be, and in view of finding out she smiled on him pleasantly.

"You are very kind to drive me out," she remarked. "Mrs. Clifford wanted to ride over to see the roundup, but she thought it would be too much for her to ride home too, so she wants me to meet her at the mess-wagon and bring her back. I'll know the way, I'm sure, once you show me."

Tips made no response. His eyes were riveted on the horses. They drove up the hill, crossed the broken country, and went down into the flat beyond. It was a windless day, soft and lovely.

"I believe I'd like to be a cowboy, myself, this kind of weather," Hazel presently observed.

Tips sniffed superciliously.

"Gee-ap!" he sang to his team.

Hazel glanced about for some subject which might possibly meet with more responsiveness.

"Oh!" she ventured, looking back at Tips's horse trotting behind the buckboard, "what a dear pony! How I should like to ride him!"

This proved too much. Tips was naturally garrulous. He was merely affecting taciturnity. He suddenly grinned broadly.

"I guess you'd be a-huntin' leather afore you was half-way up his back!" he said with such ardent amusement that Hazel broke into a laugh in spite of herself.

Tips laughed, too, quite heartily, and the ice was broken.

When the amusement had subsided Hazel felt that her driver was more approachable.

"What is your name?" she asked.


"Tips what?"

"Jest Tips."

"I mean what is your last name?"

"Tips is fust and last."

"Oh, I see," said Hazel; "but most people have two names, you know."

"Don't need more'n one name on the range. Jim, he's jest Jim," returned Tips with a grandiose air. The range was the supreme portion of the world in Tips's estimation.

'Who christened you, Tips?" Hazel asked.


"Yes. Gave you your name. Baptized you?"

"Oh, that was Jim."


"Jim was the one what took me over to Truaxes where he was stoppin'," explained Tips.

"Who was 'he'?"

"The preacher chap. Golly! How I yelled!"

"So Jim took you over to him and had you baptized?"

"Ya-ah. He put me into my white dress fust. It wasn't nothin' but a flour sack with holes for my head and arms to go through and a string tied around the waist. One of the boys said that kids had to wear white to be baptized in. Jim took me afront on his horse and the rest of the boys rode over to see it done. I was awful little then, or I wouldn't have gone, you bet!"

"So Jim had you christened?" Hazel's interest was growing. "Where was your mother?"

"Never had no mother."

"Where was your father, then?"

"Hadn't no father neither. Jim, he jest found me."

"Found you?"

"I was lyin' in the grass," said Tips. "The Indians had rounded 'em up and the rest was killed. They was layin' around their wagons all scalped — four men and five women — when Jim found me. The Indians had taken the horses and all the grub. I guess I didn't know anything about it. Jim says I must have crawled off into the grass so they didn't see me. I was pickin' it when he rode up and found me."

"Why, you poor little baby," Hazel said compassionately, "with no mother!"

Tips bristled quite belligerently.

"Can't see what a feller'd want of a mother when he'd got Jim!" he said.

"Oh!" Hazel apologized. "And so Jim raised you?"

"Jim and the boys," said Tips with pride; "mostly Jim. He was the one put me to sleep nights and he curled my hair. He used to twist it round his finger with his comb! Gee-wiz!"

"Did you have long curls?"

"'Tell I chopped them off. One day the boys called me girl, so I did it. Jim was awful cut up." Tips gave an indescribable little laugh — a commingling of mirth and tenderness. "Do you know what he did?" he said, with a curious half-glance up at Hazel. "He jest wrapped those curls up in a clean piece of tarpe and put them in his trunk, and he's got them there still."

Hazel's eyes were getting moist over this pathetic bit of range history.

"And did Jim teach you to read?" she asked.

"Oh, he taught me some. I ain't got much use for books," Tips said indifferently. "A man's got something else to think about when he's studying how to run cattle."

"So that's what Jim's teaching you? Is he a kind teacher?"

"Well, he don't cuss me much as he does the rest of the fellers," said Tips qualifiedly. "I guess," he added with a grin, "'cause I cuss back harder than he can when he tries it. That's what you'll have to do if you want to get on with Jim."

"Oh, I see. And what work do you do with the cattle?"

Tips flushed. He wished he could claim a position of high importance.

"I herd, sometimes I night-herd. And I can wrangle for the cook good as the fellow he's got now. Jim's going to take me on as a regular hand soon as I've growed some more — next spring maybe."

"How old are you now?"

"'Most thirteen."

Hazel thought of Ralph Clifford of the same age and of the tender care surrounding his life. Tips with all his shrewdness and experience was such a little boy, after all.

"Poor little chappie!" exclaimed Hazel, and, quite overcome with the pathos of the motherless Tips, she suddenly drew him to her and kissed him on the forehead.

Tips struggled free in a tempest of fury.

"Look out what you're doin'!" he cried. "I'd like to know who said you could do that! Here! Take these."

He threw the reins into Hazel's lap, quickly untied his horse and leaped out of the buckboard. He got on his horse and started on ahead of the buckboard, and Hazel understood that she was to drive the rest of the way alone. She was sorry for her impulsive act. Tips's eyes were shining with mortified tears.

"Never mind, Tips," she called out to him, "I won't do it again."

Tips muttered something about watching out that she didn't get the chance, and trotted on without looking around.


Excerpted from The Rustler by Frances McElrath, Edward Willard Deming. Copyright © 2002 University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Little information about Frances McElrath has survived in public records, but evidence suggests that she spent part of her life in the West on cattle ranches and army posts, and wrote The Rustler, her only novel, when she was a young woman. Victoria Lamont is an assistant professor of American literature at the University of Waterloo.

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