The Ox-Bow Incident Summary
by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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The Ox-Bow Incident Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Gil Carter, a cowpuncher, and his friend, Croft, ride into the little frontier town of Bridger’s Wells. At Canby’s saloon, they rein in their horses. Canby is alone at the bar. He serves Gil and Croft with silent glumness and tells them that Rose Mapen, the girl Gil is looking for, has gone to San Francisco. He also tells the two cowboys that all the local cowhands and their employers are on the lookout for rustlers who have been raiding the ranches in the valley. More than six hundred head of cattle have been stolen, and the ranchers are regarding one another with suspicion. Gil and Croft feel suspicion leveled at them when a group of riders and townsmen come into the bar.

Gil begins to play poker and wins one hand after another. The stakes and the bad feeling grow higher and finally erupt in a rough confrontation between Gil and a man named Farnley. Gil downs his opponent but is knocked unconscious when Canby hits his head with a bottle.

A rider arrives at the saloon with word that rustlers have killed Kinkaid, Farnley’s friend. Farnley does not want to wait for a posse to be formed, but cooler heads prevail, among them old Davies, a storekeeper, and Osgood, the Baptist minister. Everyone there joins in the argument for and against immediate action. Davies sends Croft and a young cowboy named Joyce to ask Judge Tyler to swear in a posse before a lawless manhunt begins. The judge is not eager to do so in the absence of Risley, the sheriff, but Mapes, a loud, swaggering, newly appointed deputy, demands that he be allowed to lead the posse.

Meanwhile, the temper of the crowd grows sullen. Ma Grier, who keeps a boardinghouse, joins the mob. When Judge Tyler arrives, his long-winded oration against a posse stirs the men up more than anything else could have done. Davies takes over again and almost convinces the men they should disband. At that moment, however, Tetley, a former Confederate officer and an important rancher, rides up with the news that his Mexican herder has seen the rustlers.

Mob spirit flares up once again. Mapes deputizes the men in spite of Judge Tyler’s assertion that a deputy cannot deputize others. The mob rides off in the direction of Drew’s ranch, where Kinkaid had been killed. There the riders find the first trace of their quarry. Tracks show that three riders are driving forty head of cattle toward a pass through the range. Along the way, Croft talks to Tetley’s sullen son, Gerald, who is not cut out to be a rancher, a fact ignored by his stern, domineering father. Croft thinks the boy appears emotional and unmanly.

The stagecoach suddenly appears over a rise. In the darkness and confusion, the driver thinks that the riders are attempting a holdup. He fires, hitting Croft high in the chest. When he learns his mistake, he pulls up his horses and stops. One of the passengers is Rose Mapen, the girl Gil had hoped to find in Bridger’s Wells. She introduces the man with her as her husband. Gil is furious.

Croft has his wound tended and continues with the posse. On a tip from the passengers, the posse heads now for the Ox-Bow, a small valley high up in the range. Snow is falling by the time the riders reach the Ox-Bow. Through the darkness, they see the flicker of a campfire and hear the sound of cattle. Surrounding the campfire, they surprise the three men sleeping there—an old man, a Mexican, and a young, dark-looking man—and tie them up.

The dark-looking young man insists that there is some mistake. He says that he is Donald Martin and that he had moved into Pike’s Hole three days earlier. One of the members of the posse, however, a man from Pike’s Hole, claims he does not know Martin or anything about him. Martin begins to grow desperate. He demands to be taken to Pike’s Hole, where his wife and two children are. The members of the posse are contemptuous. Only Davies tries to defend Martin, but Mapes soon silences the old storekeeper. The cattle are proof enough. Besides, Martin has no bill...

(The entire section is 1,164 words.)