Summary and Analysis
Part 4 of The Ox-Bow Incident is the culmination of Clark's purposeful building of emotion and suspense. Throughout the first three parts of The Ox-Bow Incident, Clark carefully builds a steadily intensifying structure of anger and commitment. In each of the first three parts, a deunified, morally ambiguous group is galvanized into undertaking what seems to them to be necessary action in pursuit of justice. At the end of Part 1, the galvanizing influence is Greene's arrival with the news about Kinkaid. In Part 2, Tetley and Amigo reunite the posse by bringing new information about the number of rustlers and the route they have taken. In Part 3, the arrival of the stagecoach, with all of its various results (principally, the wounding of Art), intensifies the posse's commitment. In Part 4, the process of intensification is completed. The irony is that each intensification leads these men deeper into error. That this error is severe and will have lasting effects is made clear in Part 3, when Croft is shot. When someone is suspected of wrongdoing in this newly civilized land, action is taken against him which may be regretted later. The stagecoach suspected the posse of being a holdup gang; because of this assumption, Croft was shot in the shoulder. In Part 4, a precise analogy will be played out: Men will die because they look suspicious.
The commentary on Part 1 indicated that these men are very concerned that their actions be acceptable-that is, they must conform with social propriety. Part 2 of the book concerns the need for a leader to organize the posse. Tetley, of course, is the man; it was suggested in Part 2 that he is a successful leader (in an ironic sense) because his motives are limited and personal. He may seem to want to catch the murderers (the men certainly believe he wants to), but his deeper motive is to force his son into behavior which will make him a man. Major Tetley should be observed closely in Part 4. His attention and bearing are riveted on Gerald; we realize now that this pursuit of the rustlers is a means to a different end than the restoration of justice. Gil was right to doubt the integrity of the leaders of this posse.
These two factors, social pressure on the men and Tetley's secret motivation, combine to make the unhappy action of Part 4. We will consider the case against Martin, Hardwicke and Juan shortly. They certainly seem guilty. Further these negative bits of evidence necessitate a kind of hypothetical thinking of which this group, led by Major Tetley, is incapable. That the men are hanged is clearly a sin of commission by the posse and that a hanging occurs is the result of a series of sins of omission thoughts which were not pursued and facts which were not adequately considered.
Would rustlers build a fire large enough to be seen as far as the mouth of the Ox-Bow? Would rustlers all sleep at the same time? Would killers do away with the one piece of evidence clearly linking them to the crime, the murdered man's gun? Whom did the people on the stagecoach see farther on, over the summit? Why doesn't a delegation ride on (since they are waiting until morning anyway, and the blizzard is almost over) to see who is down the road? All these questions are easily answered when we remember Tetley's purpose. If Gerald Tetley is to be made into a "man," someone must be hanged (in Major Tetley's view). These three unprepared, reasonably guilty-looking "rustlers" will do just fine.
And they look guilty enough. They have fifty of Drew's cattle; Drew has been heard to say he wouldn't sell to God himself because the calf crop has been so thin. Martin claims to have a ranch in Pike's Hole. No one from Pike's Hole has seen him; the ranch (the Baker place) which he claims to own belongs to somebody else. Drew never sells a cow without a bill of sale, and Martin has no bill of sale. Juan, who pretends to know no English, is an outlaw of some considerable reputation. Old Hardwicke babbles continuously that "he did it; somebody did it," or that "I couldn't have done it if he did it, could I?"
How can a humane and graceful letter (from Martin to his wife) contest these matters? And then Juan (Francisco) is caught with Kinkaid's gun in his hand when he tries to escape. Only in a courtroom could a true balance between such damning particulars and so slight a redemptive bit of evidence as the letter be found.
Clark juxtaposes two events, one at the end of Part 3 and one at the beginning of Part 4, to indicate the balance of commitment in the posse and to prepare us for Davies's painful confession in Part 5. First, Tetley divides the posse into smaller groups. As he does this, he assigns the unarmed men (Sparks and Davies) to go with Bartlett's and Ma Grier's groups. Winder suggests that Davies had better be given a gun. Davies refuses. This refusal of a gun will haunt him when the action has been played out.
The second incident is a brief exchange between Gil and Art as the groups are dividing to circle the rustlers' camp. Gil tells Art to take care of himself, that "this still don't have to be our picnic." Art disagrees: "It looks like it was." Afterward, we begin to foresee the inevitable outcome. Davies, the vocal spokesman for ethical action, is unarmed. Croft has a gun, but he has not yet perceived the relationship between knowledge and responsibility. For some reason, people seek out Croft as a listener. Davies, Gerald Tetley, and, finally, Sparks have all been influences on Croft's conscience. Croft, as a writer and reader of books, should be able to understand the things he is told, though we perceive some disparity between his confidence in his insights and the actual validity of them. For example, his assertion that Tetley and Davies are antithetical in their interpretations of a single fact — what everybody thinks — shows a certain insufficiency of insight. Still, however, be has been told why formal justice is necessary, and he has been told (by Gerald Tetley) what forces work against just behavior among men. He has also had what might be called a warning, when he was shot in the shoulder. And he has a gun.
Beyond these facts, Croft himself provides proof of what Gerald Tetley has said about the "pack." In his conversation with Art, Gerald described the power-hunger madness of the pack as being the threat which appears in our dreams and then turns them into nightmares. While the men wait for sunrise, so that the lynching may be done. Croft goes to sleep.
"I woke suddenly, with my shoulder aching badly my head light again, and my mouth dry. I was scared about something and tried to get out of my blanket quickly and stand up but a weight was holding me under." Gil is holding Art because as he says, "You were jabbering . . . I thought maybe you was out of head. . . . You was scared to death when I took hold of you."
Croft should now be able to realize that Davies's speech and its implications, in Canby's saloon is the antidote to' the pack's hunger for power, described already by Gerald. Davies is not the opposite of the pack; he is the remedy.
Davies continues to be as forceful as he can as a vocal spokesman for justice. While Smith drunkenly tries to seduce a stolid Ma Grier, Davies tries to induce various posse members to read a letter which Martin has written to his wife. Davies contends that no guilty man could write such a beautiful letter. When Martin discovers that Davies is passing the letter around he is angry and creates a disturbance which permits the Mexican' to escape for a few moments. The Mexican is pursued, shot in the leg, and brought back to the campfire. We now learn that he is Francisco Morez, a notorious outlaw wanted by lawmen throughout the West. Further, we learn that be is a cultured man and that he speaks eleven languages. This is a curious detail, and we wonder why Clark has included it. The only other man with book learning and insight (and the other man to be wounded) is Art Croft. Perhaps Clark is emphasizing the extent of Croft's guilt (if he doesn't act) by showing us this analogous Mexican, who is a manifestly guilty fellow.
And he has Kinkaid's gun. Kinkaid's gun is an intrusive detail, a kind of deus ex machina of guilt, and readers frequently assert, with some justice, that it is altogether too unlikely to believe. However, the posse has convicted the three men and has decided to hang them even before Kinkaid's gun is found. If Kinkaid, as a character, serves the symbolic function discussed in the commentary in Part 2, then it is less difficult to accept Clark's insertion of it at this point. The gentle quality which Kinkaid represents is antithetical to the violent powers, the hungry pack members who possess the guns and the rope for lynching. Croft, of course, is always the exception. His gun remains unused and neutral. He never succumbs to the pack; neither does he resist it. He has told us that he is slow to understand or endorse a new idea; indeed, he may be too slow.
At the end of Part 4, the men feel abused, as do the readers. They have come to sympathize with Martin because of his courageous protest about the letter, with Morez because of his courage when he removed the bullet, and with Hardwicke because he is a helpless, foolish old man. They do not believe that the men are innocent; they only feel it, and only a little. But now they hate Major Tetley (except for Mapes and Smith), not because he led the lynching, but because he led it for his own reason: he wanted to force Gerald Tetley to abandon his effeminate, wishy-washy ways. Gerald fails to "cut" his horse, so Martin dies an excruciating death. When Tetley strikes Gerald with his gun butt, nearly killing him, the men realize that Tetley has misled them.
At the beginning of Part 4, Art Croft is "excited and peculiarly happy" to be on the manhunt. Now he is "glad," but glad because the snowfall is so heavy that it blots out the sight of the three hanging bodies as the posse rides away. Just as the earlier snowfall marked the beginning of the posse's final test in search of justice and an end to rustling in Bridger's Wells, so this final snowfall marks the end. The quest has failed; the prize is lost The rustlers may be caught sometime, but not yet and not by this group.