The Ox-Bow Incident isn’t what I would think is a classic Western novel. The action takes place in the American West, using many of the types and settings that populate such novels. The focus of the fiction is not on the action. It is not on fighting Indians, or homesteading, or robbing stagecoaches or anything of the like. The Ox-Bow Incident is a parable about the danger of mob action and the rule of law. It impressed me quite a bit.
There will be spoilers here.
Art Croft and Gil Carter the two person team that rolls into Bridger’s Wells. Art narrates the story while Gil gets drunk and fights in the saloon. Then a youth comes rushing into town relating how rustlers have made off with a local rancher’s cattle leaving the rancher behind, dead. Croft and Carter initially worry about being blamed, since they are outsiders. Friends of the rancher, Kinkaid, start rounding up men for a lynch mob to chase down the rustlers and string them up.
Not everyone is for that action, however. An older man, Davies, argues against it. As does the local judge. And so would the sheriff, were he in town and not on the range dealing with other crimes. Croft has reservations, but goes along with the crowd partially to fit in, and partially because he doesn’t have any great moral qualms about mob justice. The townspeople’s commitment to a lynching vacillates until Tetley, the hard stoic former Confederate general arrives. His resolve quickly steels everyone else, and they head out after the rustlers.
My recounting here doesn’t make it all that much different from a regular Western, except that there is a lot of inks laid down regarding the morality of mob rule and the personalities of the people who make up the mob. The utter wrongness of the lynchers is pretty apparent at the beginning. Clark deliberately left the guilt of the rustlers open to question, so that the reader will assume they are innocent and the crowd is looking for reasons to convict.
Where the book’s real meat lies, though, is the aftermath of the lynchings and quick exoneration of the suspected yet obviously innocent rustlers. Some of the participants justify themselves. Others blame Tetley. Some just drink.
It’s a shame this book isn’t more widely read. I’d put this in a high school curriculum over a lot of the canon that is taught now. Complex characters, ambiguous moral quandaries, but also clear plot and language that isn’t over-written. Highly highly recommended.