Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164
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...
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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 of sale. He claims that Drew sold him the cattle and had promised to mail him a bill of sale.
The posse wants an immediate hanging. Tetley wants to force a confession, but most of the riders say it is no kindness to make the three wait to die. Martin tells them that the Mexican is only his rider and that he knows little about him because the man speaks no English. The old man is a simpleminded fellow who had agreed to work for Martin for very little pay. Martin is permitted to write a letter to his wife. Shortly afterward, when it is discovered that he possesses Kinkaid’s gun, the Mexican begins to speak English, claiming that he had found the gun.
Tetley appoints three of the posse—his milksop son, Farnley, and Ma Grier—to lead the horses away from the men, whose necks would then be caught in the nooses of the ropes tied to the overhanging limb of a tree. Martin, despairing, makes Davies promise to look after his wife, and he gives Davies the letter he had written, and a ring.
A fine snow continues to fall as the three are executed. The Mexican and the old man die cleanly. Martin, whose horse has been started slowly by Gerald, has to be shot by Farnley. Tetley hits his son with the butt of his pistol for bungling the hanging. Then the posse rides away. As they ride out of the Ox-Bow, they meet Sheriff Risley, Judge Tyler, Drew, and Kinkaid, who was not dead after all. The judge shouts that every member of the posse will be tried for murder. The sheriff, however, says that he cannot arrest a single man present for the murders because identity is uncertain in the swirling snow. He asks for ten volunteers to continue the search for the real rustlers.
Only old Davies seems moved by the affair, more so after he learns that Martin’s story is true and that the cattle had been bought from Drew without a bill of sale. Nearly maddened, he gives the ring and letter to Drew, who promises to look after Martin’s widow. After Croft and Gil return to Canby’s saloon, Davies begins to moan to Croft. Davies convinces himself that he himself caused the hanging of the three men. Gil gets drunk. Later that day, Gerald Tetley hangs himself, and a few hours later his father also commits suicide. The cowhands take up a collection for Martin’s widow. In their room at Canby’s, Gil and Croft can hear Rose laughing and talking in the bar. They decide to leave town.