The Ox-Bow Incident ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, is set in the American West in 1895. While ostensibly a “western,” it’s about something more than ridin’ and shootin’ and shootin’ and ridin’. It’s about a group of mostly decent men who, following their “leader,” with nothing more to go on than hearsay, take the law into their own hands and perform an act that is reprehensible and inexcusable.
Art Croft and Gil Carter are cowboys and best friends (not the kind in Brokeback Mountain). While the story is not about Art Croft, he is narrating; he is the “voice” of the story. Cattlemen in 1895 fear nothing more than rustlers. Word has reached town that a well-liked man named Kincaid has been murdered and his cattle stolen by three desperadoes. The cowpokes drinking in the saloon are easily riled when it comes to stealing cattle. They immediately want to set off and find the perpetrators, and they don’t intend to be gentlemen about it, either.
Calling themselves a “posse,” twenty-eight men set out from town to track down the thievin’ scum who killed one of their own and stole his cattle. A snowstorm is threatening, but these men are not to be deterred by a little inclement weather. A man named Tetley is the de facto leader—he is the unfeeling “brain” of the group. We see how decent men with a forceful, commanding leader will follow that leader and not think for themselves because they are afraid to be seen as different.
An old man named Davies has gone along with the posse, not because he has the customary “blood lust” that the others have, but because he believes he might prevail upon the more sensible of the men to desist and not do anything they’ll regret later. He is the “heart” of the group, its conscience.
The posse rides and rides through the winter night until they do, in fact, come upon three men sleeping around a campfire. This is exactly what they have been looking for. They begin bullying the three and asking them questions, with no attempt at uncovering the real truth. They have found three men who fit the description of the rustlers (any evidence against this is circumstantial), and they intend to take matters into their own hands in the only way they know how. Davies tries to get the men to take the three back to town, where they might be investigated properly, but the men ridicule him and call him names. A couple of the other men are also in favor of turning the three over to the “real” law, but that is not the will of the “mob,” so they are shouted down.
From the time the posse comes upon the three men accidentally, the outcome is inevitable. Spurred on by the leader Tetley, the mob wants a hanging and they won’t be satisfied with anything less. Of the three supposed rustlers, the young man Martin tries to argue his case and the case of the other two men with him (a Mexican and an old man named Hardwick), but it’s no use, no matter what he says.
The hanging of the three innocent men takes place at sunrise. Ironically, after the men are dead, it becomes glaringly apparent that the mob has made a mistake and, as might be expected, they need someone to blame.
The Ox-Bow Incident is scrupulously detailed, beautifully written, sometimes slow-moving (patience is required), with lots of dialogue and lots of character touches. It is a story about mob rule, the strange phenomenon known as “groupthink” that, under certain circumstances, can bring about disastrous results. When people are not willing to think for themselves and when they know that what they are being told to think is immoral or unfair, they are relinquishing their humanity to the bully or the tyrant. Only afterwards will they become aware of the little thing they have inside them known as conscience.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp