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With Wister as the unnamed narrator, the book reflects Wister's strong reactions to his visit to Wyoming. Starting with the author's arrival in Medicine Bow, WY, the novel describes his encounters with the wild west. He makes friends with the strong-minded foreman of the Shiloh Ranch, and discovers the west to be very different from what he had thought. From that point onward, the novel revolves around the foreman, known only as the Virginian, and the life he lives. As well as describing the Virginian's conflict with his enemy, Trampas, and his romance with the pretty schoolteacher, Molly Stark Wood, Wister weaves a tale of action, violence, hate, revenge, love and friendship. Wister succeeds in making the Virginian a stern man with a soft side to his personality. The book contains many different stories throughout. In one scene, the Virginian must participate in the hanging of an admitted cattle thief, who had been his close friend. The hanging is represented as a necessary response to the government's corruption and lack of action, but the Virginian feels it to be a horrible duty. He is especially stricken by the bravery with which the thief faces his fate, and the heavy burden that the act places on his heart forms the emotional core of the story. A fatal shootout resolves the ongoing conflict with Trampas, after five years of hate. The Virginian shoots Trampas and leaves to marry his young bride. The next day, they ride off together into the mountains. The book ends with a short description of their later life, and exposition about the Virginian eventually becoming a great man and fathering several children.
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