The Ox-Bow Incident (novel)

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The Ox-Bow Incident
First edition
Author Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Genre Western
Publisher Random House
Publication date
Pages 309

The Ox-Bow Incident is a 1940 western novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark in which two drifters are drawn into a lynch mob to find and hang three men presumed to be rustlers and the killers of a local man.

Clifton Fadiman wrote an introduction to the Readers Club edition in which he called it a "mature, unpitying examination of what causes men to love violence and to transgress justice," and "the best novel of its year."[1] In 1943, the novel was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated movie of the same name, directed by William A. Wellman and starring Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan.[2]

The Ox-Bow Incident was Clark's first published novel.


The Ox-Bow Incident takes place in 1885, and begins with two riders, Art Croft and Gil Carter, riding into the town of Bridger's Wells. They go into Canby's Saloon and find the atmosphere is tense, partly due to recent incidents of cattle rustling

Gil has a propensity for fighting. During a poker game, Gil's unusually good luck leads to a fight between Gil, a local rancher named Farnley, and Art. While Art takes Gil outside to clear his head, a young man named Greene comes into town bringing news that a local named Kinkaid has been murdered and a large number of cattle have been stolen from Drew, the largest cattle rancher in Bridger's Wells.

The townspeople begin to form a lynch mob. Two local men, Osgood and Davies, attempt to deter them. Art is sent with a boy named Joyce, clerk in Mr. Davis's store, to bring Judge Tyler. When Tyler questions Greene, it turns out that Greene had not even seen Kinkaid. Tyler is almost able to defuse the situation, until the arrival of cold-hearted former Confederate soldier Tetley, his son Gerald, and Amigo, one of Tetley's hired hands. Amigo explains that he almost ran into the rustlers, but was able to avoid being seen. As the mob of 28 men sets out, Judge Tyler warns Tetley that the men must be brought back alive to stand trial. But Tetley wants to make his son manly by murdering one of the men, as he believes his son to be too "feminine" in his eyes.

On their journey, the riders encounter a stagecoach. They try to stop it, but the stagecoach guard assumes that it is a stickup and shoots, accidentally wounding Art in the left shoulder. In the coach are Rose Mapen, Gil's old girlfriend, who was run out of town earlier, and her new husband, Swanson.

After tending to Art's wounded shoulder, the mob finds three men sleeping on the ground around a campfire, and cattle bearing Drew's brand. Tetley interrogates the men: a young, well-spoken man named Donald Martin; an old, raving man named Alva Hardwick; and a Mexican named Juan Martinez who claims to be unable to understand English. Martin says that he purchased the cattle from Drew, but that he received no bill of sale as the transaction occurred out on the range. Drew was to send the bill of sale to Martin at a later date. No one believes Martin, and the mob decides that the three men are to hang. It is clear to Martin and Davies that they had already made up their minds, no matter what was said.

The hanging is postponed until dawn. Martin, as his last wish, writes a private letter to his wife. Martin asks Davies to deliver it. Davies is vehemently opposed to the lynching and is the only one in the crowd that Martin trusts. Davies reads the letter, and, hoping to save Martin's life, tries to have the others read the letter. When Martin learns of this, he becomes angry at Davies for the breach of his privacy and revealing his most intimate last thoughts intended only for his wife. Taking advantage of the distraction caused by the argument, Martinez tries to escape. He is shot in the leg. The riders then discover that Juan is able to speak "American." During his escape he used a pistol engraved with Kinkaid's name. This confirms the decision to lynch the three men.

With Davies still trying to avert the lynching, a vote is taken on whether the men should be hanged or taken back to face justice in the town. Of the group, only five are opposed to the hanging, Tetley's son Gerald among them. When sunrise approaches, the condemned men are placed upon their horses with nooses around their necks. Tetley orders three people to tend to the horses, one of them his son Gerald. When the command is given, Gerald balks and the horse simply walks out from under Martin, leaving him to slowly strangle. Farnley shoots Martin as he hangs. In anger, Tetley pistol whips his son to the ground.

After the lynching, the riders head back toward town, where they meet Sheriff Risley, Judge Tyler, Drew, and, much to their surprise, Lawrence Kinkaid, who it turns out is very much alive. Drew confirms that he'd sold the cattle to Martin, who was not a rustler. The infuriated judge declares he will have the entire mob up on charges for murder. However, after silently staring down each member of the lynch mob one at a time, Sheriff Risley declares that he will pretend he saw nobody and knows nothing. Sheriff Risley then takes ten men with him to form a posse, who will go after the real rustlers.

Once back in town, Tetley returns to his house and locks out his son. Gerald, horrified by his participation in the lynching, his own weakness in being unable to stand up to his father, goes into the barn and hangs himself. When Tetley hears of his son's death, Tetley takes his own life as well, by falling on his cavalry sword.

Later, Davies confesses to Art that he feels he is responsible for the deaths of three innocent men. Because of the shame and guilt that plague him, Davies feels he is unable to face Martin’s widow, so he asks Drew to deliver the letter to her, as well as a ring Martin bade Davies to deliver. The novel ends with Gil saying "I'll be glad to get out of here." Art says "Yeh."

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  1. ^ Fadimon, Clifford, Introduction to Clark, The Ox-bow Incident, (New York: Press of the Reader's Club, 1942) pp. viii and x. Fadimen said that Clark had done for the Western what Dasheill Hammett did for the detective story, elevating it into the realm of art and literature.
  2. ^ Dirks, Tim. "The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)". AMC Filmsite. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 

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