The Ox-Bow Incident begins as a Western horse-opera with all the stage settings and characters of a cowboy thriller, but it ends as a saga of human misery. The novel has the action and pace of a classic drama. The mob assumes the nature of a Greek chorus, now on one side, now on the other. The story rises toward an inevitable climax and, as it does so, forcibly states the harsh truth: The law of survival is linked to the curse of relentless cruelty. Walter Van Tilburg Clark made the Western thriller a novel of art.
Although set against a Nevada landscape in 1885, the novel’s portrayal of mob justice is timeless. The tragedy in the novel involves not only the theme of innocent people wrongly punished but also the theme that unjust and cruel acts can be carried out by intelligent, moral persons who allow their sense of social duty to corrupt their sense of justice.
Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, the initial setting for the novel’s development, offered its citizens recreational diversions limited to eating, sleeping, drinking, playing cards, and fighting. Into that frontier setting stepped Gil Carter and Croft, who learn that rustlers had provided the place with an exciting alternative, lynching. Osgood, the Baptist minister from the only “working church” in town, realized early on that hot mob temper could subdue individual reason and sense of justice. In times of despair, reason and justice seem less attractive than immediate action. Bartlett, a rancher who found rustling a particularly vile threat, argued that “justice” often proved ineffective and worked too slowly to guarantee that guilty men would pay the penalties for their crimes. He was able to persuade twenty townspeople to form an illegal posse, even though none of the men he exhorted owned any cattle and only a few of them even knew the allegedly murdered man. One man, physically weak and unsound, won over the rest by deriding those among his listeners who opposed his argument. Notwithstanding their thoughtfulness, the words of reason spoken by the storekeeper Davies proved unsuccessful, especially against the renewed harangues...
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The Ox Bow Incident Summary
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American author Walter van Tilburg Clark’s novel The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) is a western that tells the story of two men who join a lynch mob in a small town to try to catch and hang three suspected cattle rustlers, only to discover that their attempts at justice were misguided. The novel was generally praised by critics and was adapted into a 1943 film noir movie directed by William A. Wellman and starring Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan.
The story takes place in Nevada in 1885. Art Croft and Gil Carter, two cowboys, arrive in the small town of Bridger’s Wells after riding together through the western desert for five days. They are tired of drifting from place to place and hope to settle permanently in the town. Shortly after arriving, Art and Gil go to Canby’s Saloon, the local bar, and talk to Canby, the owner. They learn from the locals in the saloon that the town has been having trouble with cattle rustlers. Although Canby is initially suspicious of the newcomers, he eventually warms to them and offers to give them another drink.
Gil gets drunk and plays a game of poker, getting into a fight with a man who accuses him of being a cattle rustler. The men learn that a large number of cattle had been stolen from Drew’s Ranch, the largest cattle ranch in Bridger’s Wells, and that the cattle rustlers responsible had also murdered a local man named Kinkaid. Art and Gil join the other men in the saloon as they form a lynching party to go find and hang the cattle rustlers for their crimes. Davies convinces the others to wait for Judge Tyler to come before setting out on their quest.
The judge arrives and warns the men to bring the rustlers back alive to stand trial. The mob agrees and rides out to find the rustlers. The party includes twenty-eight men and is led by Major Tetley, who forces his sensitive son Gerald to go along to help toughen him up. Along the way, Gerald tells Art that men are worse than animals since they hunt their own kind. Art dismisses his comments as youthful naivete. The party learns from a couple riding in a passing stagecoach that three men were spotted in Ox Bow Valley. The lynch mob rides to the valley to find them.
Upon arriving in the valley, the party sees three men sleeping on the ground near a group of fifty cattle. The mob believes them to be the cattle rustlers that they are looking for. The three men include a young man named Donald Martin, a Mexican man named Juan Martinez who claims not to speak English, and an old man named Alva Hardwick. Martin tells the lynch party that he bought the cattle from Drew, but is unable to produce a bill of sale, saying that Drew had promised to send it to him at a later date. The lynch mob does not believe Martin’s story and orders the three men to be hung at dawn.
Martin, facing imminent death, writes an emotional farewell letter to his wife. Davies tries to get the other men to read it so that they may change their minds about executing Martin. However, Martin is angry that Davies is sharing his private letter with others and gets into an argument with him. During the ensuing confusion, Juan tries to escape but is shot in the leg. The men discover that Juan speaks English after all, and that he is carrying a pistol with Kinkaid’s name engraved on it. This confirms in their minds that the three men are the guilty parties and must be punished. The group holds a vote on whether they should take the rustlers back to town to stand trial or hang them immediately. Only five men, including Gerald, vote in favor of taking them back alive while all the others vote in favor of hanging.
Martin and his accomplices are taken on horses to the place of execution and nooses are tied around their necks. Martin’s noose is tied to a tree branch and Major Tetley orders Gerald and two other men to cut the horse loose so that Martin hangs to his death. However, Gerald balks at this task. The horse walks out from under Martin and he hangs by his neck in the noose until someone shoots and kills him. Tetley beats his son with a pistol for failing to follow orders.
Once the other two rustlers have also been executed, the lynch mob rides back to town. Along the way, however, they run into Rancher Drew, Judge Tyler, Sheriff Risley, and Kinkaid, who is injured but alive. Drew confirms that Martin had purchased the cattle from him legally and that the three men whom the mob had just killed were not the rustlers who attacked Kinkaid. Although a furious Judge Tyler threatens to charge the whole party with murder, Sheriff Risley says he is willing to overlook the crime if the men would help him catch Kinkaid’s real attackers. The sheriff leads another group to go find the real rustlers. Davies confesses to Art that he feels responsible for Martin’s killing, and asks Drew to deliver Martin’s letter to his wife in his stead.
Gerald feels so guilty about his part in the lynching that he hangs himself in his family’s barn. After learning of his son’s suicide, Tetley feels responsible and kills himself as well by falling on his cavalry sword. Shaken by the events that they have witnessed, Art and Gil change their minds about settling in Bridger’s Wells and decide to leave the town. The Ox-Bow Incident revolves around the themes of mob mentality, justice, guilt, revenge, and responsibility. The novel also makes a statement about conformity and about society’s unforgiving treatment of all kinds of outsiders,from cattle rustlers to Mexican immigrants to sensitive men like Gerald.