One of the oldest structures to be found in stories is that of the quest — a story in which a hero sets out from home on a journey to secure some boon or prize. Typically, the hero's home (or homeland) is sometimes in the grip of a plague or a tyrant. The prize which the hero seeks is a cure or antidote for this tyranny. His journey will usually take him far from home, across the sea or through deep caves or over high mountains into a foreign and threatening land where the prize he seeks is hidden. After many difficulties, the hero will capture the prize. If he is a true hero, he will win the prize and return to his homeland to free it from whatever has troubled it.
In The Ox-Bow Incident, we get one sense of this mythical structure from the very outset, as Art and Gil cross the divide from their own range to Bridger's Wells' range. Clark's version of the quest is different from the classic pattern in that Art and Gil's immediate purpose is to be accepted by the men (the cowhands of Bridger's Wells) in this different range. The "plague" which grips the country, of course, is the rustling of cattle. The quest thus will be to find the antidote for rustlings and to restore peace and tranquility to Bridger's Wells' society. Bartlett, in his impassioned speech before Canby's saloon, proposes one way of gaining the needed antidote. Davies, in his quiet way (supported by Judge Tyler and Osgood) proposes another. Which method will be chosen is not yet assured, but already there are some hints.
As the posse rides out of Bridger's Wells, the arrangement of the men is of some interest. Art Croft waits for Art Davies. They are at the end of the posse. Ahead of them rides Sparks, the preacher-of-sorts, on his borrowed mule. Virtue on this expedition, it would seem, comes last Davies is a proponent of ethical behavior, and he almost succeeds in keeping the posse from leaving. Sparks, a sincere proponent of Christianity (in contrast with Osgood, who is a "real" minister, but a man of no conviction) is the other supporter of a conventional ethic. Art Croft rides out, believing that this is "not his [or Gil's] picnic," but Clark provides some clues to suggest that Croft's proper position is aligned with Davies. One such clue is Croft's willingness to ride for the sheriff at Davies's behest; another is the congruence of first names between Croft and Davies. Still another, a more subtle clue, is accomplished through a minor motif. When Croft catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror at Canby's saloon he says, "My face was burned dark as old leather already, but it's thin, with big eyes." Davies's face is later described in similar language, and, still later, Clark uses the same description: "his [Davies's] saddle was of old, dark leather." In this way, Clark identifies Croft's position with Davies's. It remains to be seen, however, whether Croft will discover this fact.
The order of progression for the rest of the posse is also interesting. Gerald Tetley and the Mexican ranch hand ride in front of Sparks. Ahead of them are twenty-eight in all, with "a little bunch riding separately up at the head, Tetley, Mapes, Farnley, Winder, Bartlett and Ma, with Gabe and Smith not far behind them." If these are the leaders, we can, with some confidence, expect the worst.
In The Ox-Bow Incident, the heroes are in search of a just resolution which will rid the valley of the rustlers (and the murderers which the rustlers have apparently become). They are in agreement that this is the goal. Their disagreement is focused on the means by which this justice will be attained — that is, who is to be followed. Davies has propounded one version; Bartlett has passionately put forward another. Now Tetley has arrived and has taken a middle course, one which will seemingly take the best of both positions: they will be deputized, a concession to Davies and Tyler, but they will take plenty of rope.
Again, in the classic quest pattern, the quester who leaves home faces an alien land, unknown dangers, mysterious enemies, and uncertainties. In this story, however, the posse does know the direction to go because Tetley's hand has informed them that the rustlers left the valley not by the south draw, but by the pass to the west, over the mountains. They do not know, though, how many men they are after; they do not know where on the pass they may catch up with them. In addition, they face a frustrating journey; they must travel by night and through a snowstorm, uphill all the way.
Under these influences, and in this mood, Croft is ready to hear a companion truth to the truth about justice which Davies has already told him. This truth, which Croft describes as "raving," comes, surprisingly, from Gerald Tetley. First, however, the posse stops at the foot of the pass to examine the tracks they suspect to be those of the rustlers and the rustled cattle.
After a few moments of looking and talking, Tetley "smiling his I-knew-it-all-the-time smile," and the posse regroups to begin the climb. The people at the front of the group are substantially the same people who led at the beginning; now, however, Croft finds himself "nearer the middle of the bunch" and riding abreast of Gerald Tetley.
Of Gerald, Croft has said that he looked like his mother, "as much as a sullen sick boy can look like a woman with all her spirit and knack for being happy." But Gerald is anything but happy. He fears his father and hates the men in the valley with whom his father deals. Sparks has said that Major Tetley hates his son so much that he would kill him, but for his resemblance to his mother.
The dialogue between Croft and Gerald Tetley is very important in the book. Clark devotes several pages to it; only the climactic conversation between Davies and Croft is longer. In it, Gerald Tetley skillfully leads Croft to consider new perspectives about the posse. First, Gerald explains to a skeptical Croft that men are worse than animals when they hunt — that is, they are worse because they hunt their own kind; Croft replies, "there's a difference; we have reasons." But Gerald goes beyond this: these reasons are only excuses to cover a deeper motive: men hunt just like wolves; they are merely more powerful.
Next Gerald exposes Croft's concept of human kindness. Love, help, compassion, admiration — these, for Croft, are virtues. Tetley explains these too are excuses, excuses made to keep the pack from turning on its own or driving them out.
Gerald's next point concerns malicious gossip and rumor-mongering. Again, Croft partly agrees: Society does pick on its weak members sometimes. Tetley broadens Croft's statement, saying that it's not always the weak ones: "they don't weed out the unfit, they weed out the best." That all of this is affecting Croft may be proved by watching his hands. As he feels the force of Gerald's argument, his hands become increasingly nervous.
Finally Gerald refers to dreams: all the monsters that chase us through forests or hide around the corners, or push us off cliffs — all, Tetley says, are symbols of this power-hungry, virtue-killing, man-hunting pack.
Croft disagrees with Tetley's theory. He rejects it because Gerald Tetley is very young, still a boy, and he seems on the verge of hysteria. Also, Croft rejects Tetley's thesis because it seems to him diametrically opposed to Davies's ideas. For Gerald, "what everybody thought was low and wicked"; for Davies, "what everybody thought was just and fine." Croft comes to a partial understanding of this paradox, but his understanding is incomplete. Davies's justice is a function of the conscious, rational mind. Gerald's "pack" is a function of the subconscious. Croft's belief that he can assent only to one or to the other is a mistake. Under different circumstances, in a smaller group, in the daytime, Croft might be able to perceive that Davies's ideas are used to control the very power which Gerald Tetley describes. Here, though, he escapes the confrontation with an insult to Gerald, and goes to ride next to Gil, where he can be more comfortable. He is in a special and peculiar position. He is the only member of the posse to have heard the confidences of both Davies and Tetley. He alone knows the true dynamics of this posse's quest. If knowledge is responsibility, he is no longer just one of the uncommitted cowhands on the posse. He can remain uncommitted, but he should not — that is, not if he has listened carefully.
Clark focuses now on certain elements of mystery and discord and the fantastic in order to emphasize that this quest is special, beyond normal experience and normal importance The men, while warming themselves, seem to Art to look like "dark ghosts." The patches of snow which barely show through the trees in the darkness look "like huge, changing creatures stand mg upright and seeming to move." A bit of disunity appears in the posse, reminding Art of his close kinship with Gil. When Gil says that he doesn't object to hanging a rustler, the men ahead caution him to be quiet. To them, this may be a valid opinion he has expressed, but it should not be voiced for everyone to hear.
In the succeeding conversation between Art and Gil, we discover that Gil also has some reservations about this manhunt, but they are quite different. He objects to the leadership of Tetley and Farnely. Tetley, to Gil, is a "damn reb dude." Gil senses the ethical struggle Croft is having; he reminds him to stay away from Davies and Osgood and Tyler, and to "stick together" with him. If he does this, they will be safe.
The snow storm, which the clouds have been promising all day, finally begin. The posse is at the height of the pass in a narrow gorge between two cliffs, in intense darkness with a blizzard beginning. In terms of the mythic quest structure previously discussed, this marks the climax of the posse's passage. Immediately ahead lies their culminating test, the trial which will determine whether the quest will be successful. At this point, Clark juxtaposes an image of the Ox-Bow a little valley farther on. Croft's memory of it is idyllic, a sort of modern Eden.
The dissension within the posse is briefly reiterated as they argue about turning back because of the weather, the possibility that the rustlers might be found in the Ox-Bow, and Davies' proposal to send a couple of messengers ahead. Clark focuses on one of the "gang of virtue" as he talks to Croft. This time it is Sparks. His message is quiet and unassuming, yet it is strong. It deeply disturbs Croft and although he is not converted to Spark's point of view, he does find it necessary to lie in order to evade Sparks's thesis. Sparks wonders if Croft might long remember lynching a man. Croft's reply is that he would not be bothered if it were a rustler, a response Croft himself characterizes as a lie. We discover that Sparks, like Gil, has witnessed a previous lynching, that of his own brother. Croft has never witnessed a lynching, but these vivid reports from Gil and Sparks ought to be sufficient to frighten him.
As any scene should do in a well-made novel, the next scene in The Ox-Bow Incident functions in several interrelated ways. Each section of the book is designed as though it were a mini-drama: rising action leads to a climax, which is resolved in a brief scene. In Part 3, the rising action has focused on Croft's conversations with Gerald Tetley and Sparks, as the posse ascends the pass. Now, with the posse scattered by a sudden sound, they (and we) await the climax of Part 3. After a seemingly interminable wait, the source of the noise appears. It is a stagecoach, part of Winder's line, and when the stage driver sees, and hears, all of these men in the dark night, he naturally whips the horses to go faster. The men try harder to stop the stage; suddenly Carnes, the guard on the stage, aims at the nearest man, who is, ironically, Winder. The shot misses Winder and hits Art Croft instead, leaving him with a wound in his left shoulder.
The chaotic excitement and madness of the stagecoach scene serve to culminate the eerie unreality with which Clark has invested the posse's climb into the mountains. This notion gets explicit mention by Croft, after he has been wounded. He dozes as they ride and thinks of the Flying Dutchman legend. But the legend is changed: here, twenty-eight riders ride forever through snowstorms in the mountains, looking for three dead rustlers whom they must find before their souls can be at peace.
A second element in the stagecoach scene is the appearance of Rose Mapen and her new husband, Swanson. Now we see why Gil was disappointed at Canby's saloon. Rose is attractive, but is no longer available. Gil has some thoughts about seducing her anyway, but Swanson, a quiet, but forceful, man quickly puts an end to Gil's musings. Swanson's behavior should be noted. His importance to the story may be out of proportion, but two things emphasize his importance. First, he has married Rose Mapen, Art's former girl friend; second, Swanson is the last character discussed in the novel.
The third function of this scene is to provide information. The men on the stage have seen a group of three (perhaps four) unfriendly and suspicious men who are partially hidden in a small ravine five miles on the other side of the summit. The ravine, however, is small, probably too small to hold more than about ten cattle.
Clark takes great care to instill in the posse a clear knowledge of the place where the ravine is, the unfriendliness of the men, and the distance from the present place.
As for Croft's wound, Clark seems to indicate that the price exacted against the man of insight, who has the information necessary to make a right decision and fails to make it, will be severe. And it will be exacted in advance of the unethical, unjust action itself.
Ironically, the wound works to reinforce Croft's resolve to continue this manhunt. Both Art and Gil have believed until now, that this was a "picnic" which they could abandon at will. Now, Gil's disappointment at losing Rose has reinforced a need for revenge, and Art's shoulder wound has made him feel that he has a "stake" in the matter at hand.
Several people try to persuade Art to go down to the town with the stagecoach. The pressures of the "pack" described by Gerald Tetley are too strong, however. Croft is ashamed of moaning when he was shot and passing out when the wound was dressed. Now he must restore his credibility as a "man," so he rides on toward the Ox-Bow with the other twenty seven men who are looking for the rustlers.