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In 1885, Molly Wood, who is from a prominent Bennington, Vermont family, decides that she wants more from life than her socially acceptable but static existence can offer. Leaving behind her family and boyfriend, Samuel Bennett, Molly takes a post as a schoolteacher in Bear Creek, Wyoming, outside of Medicine Bow. On the way, her train is stopped by the Box H Ranch cattle, which are being herded by a foreman known as "The Virginian" because of his home state. As he is moving his cattle, the Virginian hears a familiar whistle and greets his friend, Steve Andrews, whom he has not seen in three years. Steve is happy to see his old pal, but tells him that he has saved enough money to move to New York and will be departing the next morning. Upon arriving in town, Molly is frightened by a docile steer, but when the Virginian rescues her by pulling her onto his horse, she becomes infuriated at him. Despite the rebuff, he later defends her against Trampas, a rustler who insults her character. The Virginian then asks Judge Henry to give Molly one of his horses as a gift, and organizes a welcoming party for her. Molly stubbornly refuses to befriend the Virginian, but her hostess, Mrs. Taylor, encourages her, and when she finds out that her horse was from him, she agrees to go riding with him. Soon, the Virginian has fallen in love with Molly, but she is reluctant to accept his proposal because of the differences between them. Before he leaves for a cattle round-up, he asks that she give him her answer when he gets back. During the round-up, Trampas and his men cause a stampede and steal two hundred head of cattle from the Box H herd. While searching for the rustlers, the Virginian and his cowboys catch Steve among Trampas' men, and the Virginian regretfully must give orders to have his friend hanged. Later, the Virginian is shot in the back by Trampas and brought to the Taylor home, where he is to be nursed back to health. Molly diligently nurses him until she finds out that he caused Steve's death, then decides to return East. On her way out of town, however, Andy, the stagecoach driver, convinces her she is in love and must return to the Virginian. The day before their wedding, Trampas publicly accuses the Virginian of starting a rumor that he was the boss of the rustlers who were hanged, and orders him out of town by sundown. Despite Molly's protests, the Virginian searches for Trampas at the appointed time, and shoots him after Trampas attempts to shoot him when he is not looking. The Virginian and Molly then leave on their honeymoon to begin their new life together.