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Impressions of the West: Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Credit:

One of the greatest novels of all time about the American West, The Ox-Bow Incident was first published in 1940. It’s the story of two riders in the Old West, Art and Gil, who end up in the town of Bridger’s Wells. The people of the town are tense because of recent cattle rustling, and when they hear a rumor that a neighbor has been murdered and his cattle rustled, they form a lynch-mob to track down the culprits. They find three strangers and accuse them of the crime. Without a trial, the mob votes to hang the three. When they return to town, they find that their neighbor wasn’t murdered after all. The novel ends with Art and Gil agreeing to carry a letter one of the victims wrote to his wife on the night before he was hanged. Gil says, ‘I’ll be glad to get out of here.’ Art says, ‘Yeh.’

Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan) reflect on the night's events at the Ox-Bow (from The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943). Credit:

The story is told from Art’s perspective. Here is his description of the Ox-Bow valley, where the hanging was to take place:

The Ox-Bow was a little valley up in the heart of the range. Gil and I had stayed there a couple of days once, on the loose. It was maybe two or three miles long and half or three quarters of a mile wide. The peaks were stacked up on all sides of it, showing snow most of the summer. The creek in the middle of it wound back on itself like a snake trying to get started on loose sand, and that shape had named the valley. There was sloping meadow on both sides of the creek, and in the late spring millions of purple and gold violets grew three, violets with blossoms as big as the ball of a man’s thumb. Beyond the meadow, on each side, there was time to the tops of the hills. It was a lovely, chill, pine-smelling valley, as lonely as you could want. Scarcely anybody came there unless there was a dry season. Just once in a while, if you passed in the late summer, you’d see a sheepherder small out in the middle, with his burrow and dogs and flock. The rest of the time the place belonged to squirrels, chipmunks and mountain jays. They would all be lively in the edge of the wood, scolding and flirting. – The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 113

The Ox-Bow Incident was made into a movie in 1943, starring Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in that year.

Credit: doctormacro

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