Summary and Analysis
Readers frequently resent the amount of time which Clark spends in the book before the posse finally rides off in pursuit of the rustlers. Part of Clark's purpose, no doubt, was to invert an old cliché — that is, often the typical western novel has a sheriff who quickly forms a posse. But Clark's posse doesn't fit the mold. Most of the men do not have their guns already cocked. In fact, most of the men are not sure whether or not they want to go. Beyond that, their ambivalence is not caused by the conventional problems. They are not really worried about their personal safety. Nor are they deeply concerned with the need to take just action, though that concern grows. Their concern is primarily with doing whatever will enhance their being "accepted," (Art and Gil, for example) or simply with keeping their current status undamaged. The length of Part 2 is also necessitated by Clark's need to characterize an adequate number of people (both members and non-members of the assembling posse) to make a posse of twenty-eight people a credible group.
A final reason for keeping the men in town for an additional ninety-two pages is that these men need to find a single man to lead them on the chase. Also, the delay may be described in ethical terms. The men are waiting for someone to make a credible argument for a tenable, ethical position that will permit them to go on this manhunt — that is, their natural feeling is that this matter is the sheriff's business. Lynch law is wrong; thus they need a man who can argue them into believing that it is right and necessary to form a posse. Additionally, Croft observes, they need a scapegoat whom they can blame if things go wrong.
The ethical argument in The Ox-Bow Incident is rarely an argument between just action and unjust action. As the posse forms, near the end of Part 2, Tetley (who has the necessary skills and information to organize the posse) says to Tyler, "We will observe order and true justice, Judge." Later, perhaps, we realize that this is not his real motive, but here it is important to note that the members of the posse believe that justice can be achieved in this abbreviated way. Thus the argument binding the men into a group is more correctly defined as a conflict between formal justice, as described by Mr. Davies in Canby's saloon and justice as old Mr. Bartlett describes it: rough, quick, and sure.
Clark is clearly proposing that the posse cannot enact formal justice if they do not bring the rustlers in for trial. The pressure operating on the men to make them ignore this fact is their knowledge of the operation of Judge Tyler, a judge whose trials are slow and laborious. Clark, however, adds emphasis to his proposition that the posse cannot act with formal justice by making clear that only Risley is empowered to deputize a posse. Just before they leave, Mapes, himself a deputy and therefore unauthorized, tries to administer the oath. Clark underscores his point by having Mapes give the oath in a garbled form. Yet, the men believe that Kinkaid is dead and that the rustlers are, each minute, riding farther away; maybe, they think, Tetley and Bartlett are right about a quick version of justice. The men feel they have to be right in this pursuit; otherwise, the rustlers will surely escape — either on horseback or because of the slow process of law in Judge Tyler's courtroom.
Monte Smith is thoroughly described in Part 1, and he continues to behave in ways that make the men's tolerance of him surprising. Moore says to him, "If we go, (to arrest the rustler) you're going, Porky." Smith continues to badger the men — Moore, Davies, Sparks — almost indiscriminately, and he continues to make hollow and distasteful jokes about lynching.
Clark is establishing here a paradoxical dichotomy. Smith, the repository of sadism and perverseness, speaks loudly and dominates the action in front of Canby's saloon. Davies, for whom the men (particularly Art Croft) have a genuine regard, has a difficult time being heard, and is constantly being badgered by Smith and some of the others. It is only when most of the men have left the scene, to get guns, ropes, and horses, that Davies is able to make his arguments. Otherwise, he makes his arguments in Canby's saloon, after Art and Gil re-enter to have another drink.
Davies's argument is cogent and rational. The law, he says, is the greatest invention of human society. Law enforcement must be carried out by proper representatives because they have three things which the posse now forming would lack: time, precedent, and the consent of the majority of citizens that they (the elected officials) should act for them. The argument is sufficiently persuasive that Croft goes to Judge Tyler's house, but he is not wholly won over.
Croft observes, introspectively, that arguments always sound "a lot different" indoors than out. He further observes that a similar distinction applies to day and night. Night and the inside of a building both work to distort the true size and shape of ideas. A man must take an idea outdoors and into the daylight to judge it against the size of "real" things.
In this way, Croft is able to rationalize his continued ambivalence toward the matter at hand. Davies makes good ethical arguments, but they are "indoors" arguments. Bartlett and Smith make unethical arguments, but they have the "true" dimension of the outdoors and the daylight. At this point, either argument could still control the mob.
Croft has already indicated that Farnley functions as a kind of leader ("He became a hero, just sitting there, the figure which concentrated our purpose"), but he cannot be the one who leads. Joyce suggests that Davies believes the lack of a leader is the thing that will keep the men in town. Croft agrees. Bartlett has stirred the men with talk, but talk is not enough. Finally, Croft thinks that "Moore was the only man who could take us, and Moore wouldn't." This statement is puzzling; Moore has demonstrated a great deal of self-control and self-assurance. He has given no evidence that he is selfless enough to be the leader. Still, Clark wants us to notice these traits and look for them in a still-to-be-found leader.
Croft is hampered from making right decisions and from taking sufficiently strong actions in several ways. Of major importance is his relationship with Gil. After their long winter together in the mountains, Croft is naturally hesitant to do anything which would cause trouble between Gil and himself. Their ride into town, after all, has had as its purpose the "working out" of all the tensions that were created during the winter.
A second factor, already discussed, is Art's need to feel that he belongs in this group and to feel trusted by the men. These impediments to ethical action might be sufficient in themselves to keep Art in the background of the action for the duration of the book. Still, there is an additional factor at work within Croft that keeps him passive and on the perimeter of the matter. This factor is the distinction he feels between thinking and feeling.
Croft's natural affinity is for the immediacy and strength of feeling. When Osgood tries to dissuade the posse from forming, shortly after Green's arrival, Croft says "he had no heart in his effort," and later, he says of Osgood that "he talked with no more conviction than he walked." In this way, we see that words are only of secondary importance. If they support what is in the heart and feelings of the men, then they may be effective. But if they go against this feeling, or worse, come from an empty heart (Osgood), they are worse than useless. This feeling of Croft's is demonstrated in other ways: For example, when Ma Grier arrives, Art observes that "she wasn't given to thinking very far, but she did a lot of intelligent feeling."
He also observes that he is puzzled by Ma's natural affinity for Davies. Since she dislikes Osgood, as they all do, how can she like Davies? If Art could answer this puzzle at this point in the action, he might be able to take a more effective stand from this point on. In any event, Ma's arrival aids Croft and Carter. When she hails them, their member-ship in the group is secure.
What Art fails to perceive is that outside factors can pervert a man's natural ability to assess his feelings and arrive at a right decision. Art says that he has always been slow with new ideas; he has always needed time and space and solitude to sort them out. His feelings have been adequate for everyday decisions until now. Today, however, in Bridger's Wells, a combination of factors is at work to subvert that natural ability. The country is beset by rustlers; Art and Gil are tacitly suspect because they are outsiders. They have not found the release in women and song they had hoped for. Art discovers that his feelings lead him out of social favor; as he goes to seek Tyler and Risley, someone calls him by his first name: "That can rile you, when it's done right." When an old man ridicules him for not getting the posse going, he is anguished that he cannot retaliate against a much older man. Thus Croft's feelings are repressed; since it takes time for him to ponder problems, he feels alone. He and Gil will follow, for social reasons, but they will keep in mind, at all times, that they are not among close friends. Art and Gil thus assent to membership in whatever this group is going to be; they too wait for whoever will lead the group. Eventually a candidate appears.
Ma Grier's arrival has two effects — the first, immediate and expected; the other, more deliberate and surprising. She is still some distance from the group in front of Canby's bar when the men see her. She waves — a large, hearty gesture; then she lifts a coil of rope from her saddle horn and waves it in the air. The men cheer. Croft comments, "She changed the whole attitude in two moves, and from a quarter mile off."
Prior to Ma's arrival, the men were listening to Smith ridicule Sparks about his intentions concerning the posse. The ridicule has not been successful. Sparks is a kind of preacher, and when Osgood makes a fool of himself and finds it impossible to go on the chase, Sparks thinks maybe he ought to go. The men are made very uneasy, but Ma's arrival puts them at ease. At this point, the reader wonders if she is the person to lead the group. She is stronger than any man in the valley except Gabe, and her quick assumption of command when she enters the group makes her a likely candidate. Though Croft has asserted that her principal talent is her "intelligent feeling," she quickly questions Greene and others to get the facts clearly in mind.
The ridicule of Sparks, the questions of Ma Grier, and the noisy arrival of Judge Tyler somehow combine to aid Davies in his attempt to forestall the posse's departure. Gradually, the paucity of Greene's information becomes clear. He was in fact sent to get the sheriff. Further the sheriff is already at Drew's ranch. The projected manhunt seems doomed. Canby offers free drinks. Everyone who can offers free bunks for the night. The men except. Farnley and Mapes dismount Now, finally, after all these pages, Clark introduces the catalyst that will turn this group of ambivalent singular, more-or-less aimless men into a strong man-hunting group. Major Tetley appears very late in the story, when he sees that the experiment has not turned out as he had hoped.
The first description of Tetley is from Winder who mutters just loud enough for Croft (and nobody else) to hear: "What do we need with God almighty Tetley?" He is speaking of course of Tetley's pride and self assurance and power over men rather than of any benevolent traits to be found in Tetley's character Croft too knows Tetley s power he knows that Tetley will surely take control of the posse.
During the interim between the news that Tetley has been sent for and his actual arrival, Clark devotes several paragraphs to a description of Tetley's house, background, and family. This description works as exposition, clarifying the character of Tetley, but it has a deeper purpose, as well. As we learn that Gerald Tetley is reclusive, sickly, and tending toward effeminacy, and that he is hated by his father, we are, though we might not realize it yet, learning the basic motivation for many of Major Tetley's actions.
Tetley is the most important rancher in the valley, exceeding even Drew. Unlike Drew, though, he has his house near town. On the surface, his motivation would seem to be like that of Bartlett — that is, catching the rustlers and forestalling further cattle rustling by treating these rustlers severely. And this apparent motivation suffices with the men. As one watches the actions of Major Tetley, however, he soon realizes that Tetley's real motivation is to initiate his son into what he thinks is "manliness." He has everything he needs — political power derived from large economic holdings and leadership ability from his experiences as a Confederate officer and from his upbringing as the son of a slave-holding plantation owner — yet he lacks a "manly" son.
Beyond all this, however, Tetley has some important information. This information, garnered from his Mexican ranch hand Amigo, that three men driving Drew's cattle were seen entering Bridger's Pass, is the conclusive element in his bid for leadership.
Since Kinkaid was shot near the South Draw, the natural assumption among the men in town has been that the rustlers would have left the valley by that path. Now Tetley's news, that the rustlers are taking the much more difficult route over Bridger's Pass, is sufficient to galvanize the men into forming a posse once more. Mapes administers a garbled version of the deputizing oath (which he is not legally empowered to give); Tetley assures Tyler that they will follow order and true justice; Davies takes on a defeated look which we will see again in a more emphatic way; and the posse rides off.
Art and Gil go along, to cement their membership in the group; Tetley goes to effect a change in his son; Davies goes to continue his efforts at stopping them (or at least to get them to bring the men back for trial); Gerald Tetley goes because he is forced to; and Mapes, Winder, and Smith go to shed some blood and commit mayhem.