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Basic Information

Rustling is the theft of livestock. It comes in a few common forms:

Cattle Rustling - theft of cattle
Horse Rustling - theft of horses and ponies
Cattle Raiding - organized mass theft of cattle as a form of land piracy or unconventional warfare

The person who commits acts of Rustling is known as The Rustler. Except in Australia, where they're called a Duffer and the crime of rustling is known as Duffing. Also, given the difference in livestock distribution, duffers were more likely to be stealing sheep.

Rustling is a pretty serious crime, especially in the Wild West, where the punishment is death - at least that's what we see in the movies. And movies wouldn't lie to us. A rustler might be after one or two cattle for private consumption, or might be seeking to run off an entire herd, especially if the herd is being driven for sale. Depending on context, capturing the cattle might be less important than depriving the source ranch, slaughterhouse or even final market of them.

Besides the physical rounding up and driving off of stock, other forms of rustling could consist of branding other people's stock as your own, perhaps by modifying the brand. This tactic would work best between neighbouring (but un-neighbourly) ranches with similar brands.

On the subject of livestock theft, there is also a growing phenomenon (at least in the UK) of thieves killing and butchering animals in the field - this presumably takes a certain amount of skill and logistical support, not to mention a customer prepared to buy crudely butchered meat without asking any questions, but is apparently a thing. Probably assisted by the fact that the UK is one of the places that doing this is least likely to get you fired upon.


An example of a field butchery theft...


Game and Story Use

  • One of the premier crimes of The Western. While in the real world, lynch mobs of vigilantes probably didn't actually demand the necks of too many Rustlers, it's certainly a common meme and trope - so have fun with it!
    • And even if there's no angry mob to storm the jailhouse, there's still the Hanging Judge to worry about.
    • Given the long distance to a jail, let alone a courthouse from the average cattle range or sheep station, and the prevalence of armed guards riding herd (especially in the US), it's probably at least as likely that a would be rustler would be shot out of hand - it's not likely that much effort would be put into investigating.
      • Unless, of course someone hires some PCs to look into it - although hiring them for a revenge shooting is probably roughly as likely.
      • Which makes for a convenient cover story if you can get the corpse onto your own land.
    • Also, anyone acting at all furtively on a cattle range might well be mistaken for a rustler, whatever they happen to be up to.
      • Which may spark the aforementioned investigation, especially if the deceased would have been unlikely to be a rustler.
  • Despite being a core trope of the Western genre, this can be re-used anywhere that large scale pastoralism is in progress, from central Asian horse herds to sheep stations of Roman Sicily.
  • Note the potential of rustling for economic warfare - either in depriving the source ranch of their revenue, or in cutting the destination off from its raw materials.
    • Rival stockyard towns might seek to divert cattle from one another by any means.
    • During the War between the States, Confederate sympathisers might try to head off a cattle drive that will ultimately end up as tinned rations for the Northern invaders (re-skin as required).
    • Injuns might well see this as a direct equivalent to the white man killing off the buffalo on which they depend.
    • Cattle barons might well seek to bankrupt ranches they want to buy up by disrupting their drives.
    • Alternatively, this might be a core tool of resistance to the cattle barons - great, using examples above - for a Confederate Western, with the PCs up against their old foes from the Union Cavalry, now (effectively) working as PMCs for big cattle. The "big organised and corporate vs. the little guy" should fit quite a lot of genre appropriate clich├ęs.
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