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The novel begins with an unnamed narrator’s arrival in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, from back East and his encounter with an impressively tall and handsome stranger who proves adept at roping horses, teasing a friend who is off to be married, and facing down a fellow gambler, Trampas, with a pistol and a gently threatening, “When you call me that, smile!” This stranger, known only as the Virginian, turns out to be the narrator’s guide to Judge Henry’s ranch in Sunk Creek, Wyoming. As the two travel the 263 miles to the ranch, the narrator, later nicknamed the “tenderfoot” and the Virginian begin to come to know one another as the Tenderfoot slowly begins to understand the nature of life in the West, which is very different from what he expected. This meeting is the beginning of what becomes a deep lifelong friendship and the starting point of the narrator’s recounting of key episodes in the life of the Virginian.

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