"Gil and I crossed the eastern divide about two by the sun." The opening sentence of The Ox-Bow Incident, simple as it appears to be, presents basic information. We know immediately (if tentatively) that this cowboy story is going to be about two men, rather than the lonely hero of such books as Shane, for example. The two men have "crossed the . . . divide" and are thus on the threshold of a new country. The time? — about two by the sun. Thus Clark prepares us for a book about two's and pairs and tensions between pairs. In the country on the western side of the "divide," Clark immediately suggests one contrast which is important to Art and Gil. The town, a symbol for civilization and society, is little; the valley, a symbol for unformed, untamed wilderness is big; these are the antithetical elements by which this conflict will be measured.
At the edge of Bridger's Wells, Art and Gil spur their horses so they will travel the town's main street at a gallop; they want to "come in right" that is, they want to give the proper appearance of eagerness. This is our introduction to the most important theme in Part 1 of The Ox-Bow Incident. Our normal expectation might be that men who ride the range and are more or less solitary would become self-sufficient and unconcerned about the pressures which society imposes upon them as "acceptable behavior." Art and Gil's first action belies our expectation, for they wish to behave with propriety. Propriety, here, means "the quality of being proper, fitting, or suitable," or "conformity with accepted standards of manners or behavior."
In the little town of Bridger's Wells, Nevada, in 1883, one probably would expect propriety to be the particular province of the town's leading ladies, few as they are. The town serves the cattlemen and ranchers who are scattered across the surrounding range. These roughnecks, fighters, gunmen, and cowboys would probably be an unmannered lot, interested, when in town, only in whiskey, poker, and women, and not necessarily in that order. Clark, however, is hard at work in Part 1 to show how subtle and complicated and filled with strong pressures the cowboy society of Bridger's Wells is.
These pressures are of many kinds and of varying importance. Clark shows that these men are painfully aware of the pressures of propriety in all of their actions, speeches, and thoughts. The problems arise when so much attention is paid to the nuances and niceties of social and vocational behavior that the necessity for moral behavior is subverted or forgotten. Social propriety is a convenience; it makes life continue smoothly.
Art Croft, the narrator of the story, and Gil Carter, who has been "riding together" with Art for five years are not established members of Bridger's Wells's society. The range they ride is beyond the eastern divide. They have, however, visited Bridger's Wells many times before and know nearly everyone in the town and most of the cowpunchers around, but they still feel themselves to be outsiders. Thus, they feel a special need to behave properly, and Art is especially sensitive to the nuances of the treatment they get from others.
Canby's Bar is the "parlor" in this society, the place where social pressure is intense. When Gil hesitates before ordering, for example, Canby objects because he likes a man who can make up his mind. A proper cowboy knows what he likes. When Gil inquires about his old girl friend, Rose Mapen, he learns that she has left town, driven out by the other women. She had done nothing wrong, but she was pretty enough to make the other women think she might. In this society, a man must not show how he feels about a woman, so Gil is forced to suppress his emotions.
The men of Bridger's Wells are currently preoccupied with the serious business of apprehending cattle rustlers. All of the ranchers have lost heavily, and Art and Gil, as semi-outsiders, are more suspect than the rest. Their conversation must therefore be performed cautiously in order to preserve propriety — that is, Art and Gil may be the rustlers, but no one must convey any overt suspicions that they are. When Moore refuses to talk about the rustling, that's acceptable to Art. After all, Moore is, by nature, laconic, and is one of the senior hands on Drew's ranch crew. But Art resents Canby's behaving toward them as strangers. Moore leaves the bar in order for Canby to feel freer to talk with Art and Gil. Canby does intimate that Art and Gil are the only newcomers to the range (and thus subject to suspicion); then he tries to patch this breach of propriety by pouring Gil another drink, very slowly and carefully, in order to show Gil that he is an accepted person.
Canby then sets out some lunch for the men. Gil first pretends to ignore it, then pretends to nibble unconsciously, then eats "without pretense." The tensions inherent in Gil and Art's arrival in the rustler-beset town are thus partially alleviated. Even so, the problems of social intercourse continue to occupy the actions of the men and most of Art's attention. In addition to causing more strict and careful observance of propriety, the tension caused by the cattle rustling on the surrounding ranches has caused a change in their conversational habits. There are fewer jokes and less horseplay. As a poker game begins, Art notices that the joking is different; the men who are the objects of the jokes are not being called "horse thieves" or "card sharks." Moore's invitation to Art and Gil to join the poker game indicates that they are being accepted.
In the game, Gil is a big winner, but he does not take his winning gracefully (as is proper for a winner at poker). Farnley, one of the cowboys from Drew's ranch, violates propriety doubly: He asks to change to a new game when it is not his turn to ask, and the game he requests is "double draw," characterized by Art as an unmanly game, one for old ladies playing with matches. In this way, the realm of Ox-Bow propriety is broadened by one step. It had included social, vocational, and moral propriety. Now, it seems, it also includes judgments about what is manly and unmanly.
In Part 1, even more important than this development of what has been called the propriety motif, is Clark's insistent and constant weaving of a fabric of tensions within this society. Every imposition of propriety, of course, whether the code is followed or broken, results in a tension, but tensions of many other kinds, from many other causes, permeate the whole of Part 1. These tensions are important because they remain unresolved; eventually the ambivalence they cause in the minds and hearts of the men permits the men to behave in ways which they suspect to be wrong, but about which they are not sure.
On a personal level, Art and Gil feel many tensions. They have been isolated all winter in a cabin high on the range. They have gotten on each other's nerves and have occasionally fought. Now, tentatively friendly again, in spring, they wait for the winter pressures to dissipate, to work themselves out through talk, whiskey, and poker.
The long poker game is important in bringing into focus the most important tensions which the men are feeling. Gil wins frequently; in his drunkenness (and because they have been treated as outsiders), he takes his winning badly, makes no jokes, acts as if the winning is his due. Moore and Bartlett are tolerant of Gil's behavior, but Farnley is "not letting off steam in any way." Farnley requests a change in the game (bad form, because he is not dealing). Gil agrees to the new game, "double draw," and draws two cards to a royal flush, "damn long luck" as Farnley calls it. But Gil has not cheated. Now the resentments and deeper feelings come out. Farnley intimates that Gil may be a rustler. Out of Gil's cocksureness and the general unease, a fight develops. Two blows — one by Gil to Farnley's jaw and one by Canby's bottle to the back of Gil's neck — and the tension is eased.
Tension is further illustrated in the Croft-Carter relationship. They are good friends who can't get along well together unless beset by some outside adversity. Art is a writer, a thinker. Gil is a doer, a fighter. Art tends to be, by nature, a pacifist, but he will fight with Gil when necessary. He "gets riled himself" with Gil's behavior at the poker table. He prepares to knock out Gil during the Farnley fight, but Canby intercedes. He suggests that Gil should return the last winning to Farnley. Throughout the book, it is principally when adverse pressures come from other sources that Gil and Art can co-exist peacefully.
The relationships possible for a character in fiction are infinite, but they consist of only a few classes. A character may have a relationship with God, with other men, or with the land. He may be most concerned with the past, with the present, or with the future. In the West, a man's two main relationships are likely to be with the land and with the present.
Clark illustrates these two criteria repeatedly in The Ox-Bow Incident. Bridger's Wells is a little town in an enormous valley. Gil and Art look quickly from the town to the mountains beyond (to the west of) the town. The "real work" is spread out on the land; the town is sleepy. Gil and Art have a fairly stable friendship, but they are essentially lonely men. This sense of isolation is illustrated by almost every other character in the book. It is true that Davies has a disciple, Joyce, and Winder has a half-witted assistant, Gabe, but Canby, Tetley, Moore, Farnley, Gerald Tetley, Ma Grier, and Bartlett, are all essentially alone and somewhat introverted.
In the discussion of propriety, note that Art and Gil find it impossible to act naturally when they are with other men. Their actions and speeches become studied and careful, on the one hand, or abnormally aggressive, on the other (as when Gil and Farnley fight). Singularity, or at most, duality is the norm in this western town. Large groups lead to trouble, as they already have for Rose Mapen, and as they will for at least six other men by the story's end.
The distinction concerning the western man's devotion to the present is a bit more subtle. Only Tetley has a certifiable past, has come out of a tradition. The usefulness of a past of that sort is effectively discounted by what happens to the Tetleys at the book's end. Davies is a strong spokesman for tradition (rule under law), but he is portrayed as a physically weak and colorless man at the outset. His eventual destruction is further proof of the uselessness of tradition in a western setting. Only Risley escapes clear indictment for failure resulting from a reliance on an ordered tradition, but he comes into the action too late.
In other ways, as well, the past is shown to be ineffectual in controlling the present actions of men. Most of these are introduced in Part 2. Moore has had many and broad experiences which have caused him to be reserved. Clark communicates this with a very slight symbol — Moore's cigarette smoke. When he inhales the smoke, almost all of it stays inside. Only a thin wisp is exhaled. Croft continues describing Moore, suggesting that he has thought little about the future. He has saved no money, and now, broken and sick from too much bronc riding and from long years on the range, he is "afraid he will not be able to work much longer."
These peculiarly western effects on men are all evident in Part 1. Additionally, the use of the landscape and weather as affecting the characters is introduced in Part 1. The size of the western landscape is an important factor as the action develops. The territory is too big for one man (Risley) to cover it all. Someone suggests it could be covered better than Risley covers it. On this occasion, Risley is on the right ranch, but he is still twenty miles in the wrong direction, when the posse sets out.
Beyond all this, there is a way in which the people use the landscape as a substitute for God. Art watches the sky incessantly; he has even studied charts of constellations. Gil has never studied books, but he knows the sky better than Art does. Ma Crier worships the mountains, almost to the point of foolishness. She drags her huge bulk up in the mountains, perhaps, Art thinks, in expiation for some of her past sins. Still, when the action ends, the mountains are unchanged; they can withstand violations of sacred order. Western men can too, but the tradition-oriented men cannot.