Summary and Analysis
The last part of The Ox-Bow Incident functions as a denouement. It does nothing more than pursue to their conclusion the natural and inevitable results of the climactic act — the lynching of Martin, Morez, and Hardwicke on the basis of what seemed sufficient evidence. But Clark, whose book has been gathering momentum, does not gloss over this denouement Such momentous action should lead to some stunning resolutions, and it does.
As the posse (except the Bartlett boys and Amigo who stay behind to bury the dead men) rides back down from the Ox Bow Valley, Davies and Gerald Tetley bring up the rear Croft looks back, despite the pain in his shoulder, to describe them We have seen how Croft has failed to analyze himself accurately but he continues to be accurate in his perceptions of the others. Gerald was "gnawing himself inside again. Passionate and womanish but with a man's conscience and pride, that boy kept himself thin and bleached just thinking and feeling." Theoretically, there are two ways to avoid the depression in which Gerald Tetley is caught: first, one can act on the principles of his thoughts and feelings, but Gerald Tetley is denied that course by the pressure of his father. The alternative is to avoid thinking and feeling on matters of ethics and moral courage altogether. This, of course, has been Art Croft's way.
Art Davies, like Gerald Tetley, is behaving strangely by rubbing ". . . his eyes and forehead, as if there were cobwebs on his skin." These two men have thought and felt strongly about the injustices perpetrated by the posse and will be the men most strongly affected by them.
Surprise shocks the men: a small group of riders materializes out of the fog — Drew, Judge Tyler, Risley and Kinkaid! The deadly mistake has been the result of a simple exaggeration of the truth. Kinkaid's head is bandaged; he was wounded, but not killed. The men seen by Carnes and Small, farther along the pass, must have been the ones.
Judge Tyler, of course, is ready to try the entire posse for murder, but Risley knows that Tyler can't handle even one murder case. He quickly perceives that nothing can be done against these men, so he carefully chooses a posse to go after Kinkaid's real attackers. At this point, Drew apologizes for selling the cows without a bill of sale. And, for some reason, which we do not know yet, Davies no longer feels fit to bear Martin's letter to his wife. Drew agrees to do it and to return the money which Martin paid for the cattle to Mrs. Martin.
Gerald Tetley is a man of his word. He promised to kill himself if the lynching took place. It has, and Gerald, unnoticed, leaves the group to fulfill his promise at the bottom of a small ravine nearby. Smith, so skillful at mismanaging matters throughout the book, surprises us. He slides down the ravine, stays Gerald's hand, and drags him up to the top. Now he has at least two things to tell when he gets back to town, and he will tell them, with relish. Above all, Gerald Tetley is alive to return home.
Art and Gil return to Canby's Saloon. Canby, the efficient "policeman" of Part 1 (he stopped the fight between Gil and Farnley) proves to be the "physician" of Part 5. As the posse rode away from town, Art Croft looked back to see Canby, at the door of his saloon, a white cloth in his hand. Now the white cloth (albeit a different cloth) is used for Art's wound. Canby gives him an upstairs room, with an east window and puts a new dressing on his wound. Art seems to be outside the action now; he has paid for his participation, in blood. But he is to be tried again, and our judgment of him will not improve as we watch him once more. After a refreshing sleep, Croft feels well enough to get something to eat. But as he starts to get up from the bed, he sees Davies sitting in his room. Davies clearly has not slept, as Croft has, and he looks nearly insane. Croft, without really knowing why, is anxious to avoid this confrontation. "I was afraid of it," he says. Davies is not here to indict Croft for his failure to forestall the lynchings, however. He is here to accuse himself. "Croft . . . I killed those three me."
In this conversation, the longest single dialogue in the book (approximately twenty-three pages), we learn who is to suffer the most severe tragedy, besides the deaths we have already seen and will see. As the scene begins, Croft makes two observations which make him a less sympathetic character. First, he thinks that the sleep has eradicated the ethical problems so that he knew in advance the meaning of anything which Davies might say.
Second, he is embarrassed by the emotion which Davies shows. As the talk continues, Croft is frequently preoccupied with the noises downstairs at the bar and with wondering about Gil. Despite these shortcomings, Art Croft does listen to Davies and confesses sufficiently so that we realize that he could not have prevented the lynching.
Croft believes that all the men on the posse are culpable, to a greater or lesser extent, except for Sparks and Davies. That is his way of viewing it, "from the outside," as he says. For a moment, Davies is eager to
believe it, but his optimism falters He would like to think that he is innocent, but he was the only one at the lynching with a clear, strong, rational conviction that the men were innocent.
At the outset, Croft found himself rejecting Davies's ethical ideas because they were only rational, one couldn't feel them only think them. Then, at the crucial time in the Ox Bow his position reversed itself. By then, his intellect was persuaded of the men's guilt. The evidence seemed clear and adequate. But he felt they were innocent, as did many others. Still, "There wasn't the proof . . . You don't get all set for a hanging and stop for some little feeling you have." Art Croft is a disappointment. But he is alive.
And Gerald Tetley is dead. While Croft slept, Gerald Tetley hanged himself from a beam in the barn, after he found the doors of the house locked against him. We begin to appreciate Davies' impassioned confession more fully now, and the toll against him (if his assumption of the responsibility and guilt is proper) is not three, but four men's deaths.
The final explanation of his willingness, even eagerness, to assume the guilt is soon explained. First, he challenges Croft's previous assertion that he knew what Davies was thinking. Croft is forced to admit that he was wrong; no man could know what Davies was thinking at the moment of the lynching.
The passage describing this exchange is important Davies asks Croft to review his thoughts. Croft says they were probably like his own — that is, he wished that the lynching didn't have to be done, or if it had to be, he wished that it were over — "the poor bastards . . . dead and happy."
Davies' questions are pointed. "You didn't think it could be stopped?"
Croft — "It was too late for that."
Davies — "You didn't think of using your gun?"
Croft's thought — "That surprised me." Here Clark joins together the several threads of his narrative. Davies feels guilty because he knew what had to be done to stop the lynching and he didn't do it. He should have confronted Tetley with a gun and forced him to take the men back to Bridger's Wells. Davies, however, not only didn't act, but he was glad he didn't have a gun so that he wouldn't have to force the crisis.
The key sentence for Croft is his bemused, "that surprised me." His identification with the men of the posse is complete. He is no longer an outsider and he no longer feels the pressure to belong. He does belong. The quality which he had at the beginning — the ability to question the actions of the men (when he went with Joyce to Judge Tyler's house) — is gone. We expected too much of him.
The quality needed was courage, courage combined with insight. Davies had the insight, but he lacked courage. We cannot be sure about Croft. We think he had sufficient courage; he fought with Carter; he confronted Tyler; he was not stopped by the rifle bullet. And we think he had the insight: "If rarity is worth, then moral courage is a lot higher quality than physical courage . . ." But when Davies' question about the gun is uttered, Art is surprised.
The closest anyone came to stopping Tetley was during the confrontation with Gil. And Gil's short-lived interference came because he thought Tetley had impugned his physical courage. Moral courage is even rarer than Croft thought, for not even Davies had sufficient moral courage.
One shocking element in the denouement remains Gil brings the news that Major Tetley has committed suicide After learning that Gerald hanged himself he locked himself in the library and fell on his army
sword Davies is crushed by this final blow, he goes off whimpering like a woman crazy with grief. Canby brings one more bit of news: Money is being collected for Martin's wife. More than five hundred dollars has been contributed already. And Canby offers a final, cynical judgment: "It's not a bad price at that . . . for a husband that don't know any better than to buy cattle in the spring without a bill of sale."
The toll is heavy. Five are dead, one wounded, and one defeated and guilt-ridden. Thus Croft ends the way he began — with Gil. The population is too sparse; the country is too big. The men are too singular; the institutions of society are too weak. Bridger's Wells will have to grow. More deputies will have to be provided for Risley. Men will have to become more domesticated. Rose Mapen will then be able to remain in the town, and Art Croft will have sufficient leisure and social assurance to explore the ethical implications of the experience he has been through. In the meantime, rustling will continue, and such an adventure as we have witnessed could happen again.
Throughout the novel, Art Croft has been discussed in terms of failure — his failure to perceive what he ought to do in this most difficult of situations. In this way, Clark explains the anger and frustration most readers feel when Martin is seen hanging from a tree, alongside his two helpers. Though Davies takes the blame in Part 5, most readers feel that this is unjust; at least, he should share the blame with Major Tetley. We are finally puzzled and frustrated by those fourteen or so posse members (including Gil and Art) who take no active part in the lynching at all, but merely acquiesce to it.
These men are young, strong and active, possessed of common sense, and, (we think) basic decency. In short, they seem a lot like ourselves. But their perspectives are limited. They want to be liked; they want to have fun. They hate rustlers, but they have perhaps committed some modest larceny sometime in the past. They prefer peace, but they will fight, if driven to it. In short, they are possessed by two impulses-one which is perverse and distasteful, like Monte Smith, and one which is gentle and, decent, like Larry Kinkaid. Under normal circumstances, Kinkaid's impulses would dominate. However (and this is the frightening factor), Clark shows many things which might alter the Situation, suppressing the gentle and humane qualities and releasing the perverse, cruel ones. Disappointment about the absence of Rose Mapen will do it Fear of feeling like an outsider will do it. Rustling will do it. Murder will surely do it. And once done, once released, these qualities will be intensified by every inciting speech, every new arrival to the group, every passing moment. Reason may try to retain control and restrain the darker impulses (the posse almost disbands near the end of Part 2), but there are too many barbaric forces in Bridger's Wells. Thus the posse regroups and rides out.