The Ox-Bow Incident begins with the first-person narrator, Art Croft, and Gil riding into the town Bridger's Wells. They are excited after working on the 'winter range'. They have been riding together for five years and have spent winter alone together in a shack. A description of the town ensues and it is depicted as 'losing its stage-stop look and beginning to settle into a half-empty village'.
On their arrival, Monty Smith is observed standing outside Canby's saloon and is introduced to the reader as 'the town bum'. Gil and Croft enter the saloon and attention is paid to a painting entitled Woman With a Parrot. Canby calls it The Bitching Hour. A description of Canby ensues, and Gil and Canby continue a ritual of discussing the painting. Croft then tells Canby about the fight he and Gil had in the shack.
After Smith has scrounged a drink from Croft, Gil enquires if 'his girl', Rose Mapen, is still in town. Canby informs him that she left for San Francisco on the first stagecoach out of the town that spring.
Moore enters the saloon and is introduced to the reader as Drew's foreman. He is described as sick, but used to be a great rider. Canby mentions that Risley (the sheriff) is still in the area and Moore makes it clear to the others that he does not want to talk about Risley or the rustling of cattle. It is mentioned how the town is a long way from any border and everybody would know if there was a stranger about. Canby then says there are only two strangers who know cattle and is referring to Croft and Gil. Gil becomes argumentative and ready to fight at the implication Canby has made. Croft asks Canby if they are certain about the rustling and is told that Bartlett is sure.
Moore, Gil, Croft and Canby play cards and demonstrate there are no ill feelings between them. Croft's retrospective thoughts of the situation reveal his mounting paranoia as he notes that most of the men who come in look at them for 'longer than usual'. He then notices how there is a 'difference underneath' as nobody is joking about others being card sharps or liars.
Canby leaves the card circle to serve and others join them, including Farnley and Bartlett. Gil has a winning streak and Croft mentally criticizes Gil for being so 'cold' in his luck. By this he means that Gil refuses to joke. Croft also stresses that Gil does not cheat. Farnley asks to change the game to draw. Gil continues to win and Farnley implies Gil has cheated. A fight erupts and Gil and Croft are outside as Gil considers giving Farnley his money back as a kind gesture. When they return to the interior of the saloon, Croft notices immediately that something is amiss. Everyone is listening to a young rider, Greene, who is saying that Kinkaid has been shot in the head. Canby tells Gil and Croft that it is likely there will be a lynching for the rustling and because Kinkaid has been killed.
Farnley had been great friends with Kinkaid and Croft is convinced that this group will go 'a long way' to apprehend the murderer. It is reported that Kinkaid was killed about noon time and found later. Croft wishes he could feel the same way as the others, but feels guilty because he believes the other men do not trust him. He knows that Gil feels the same way
A first-person narrator, Art Croft, is used throughout this novel and the narrative is expressed retrospectively. The realism of this work is gritty, particularly in the descriptions of the saloon and of the game of cards.
A sense of paranoia courses through this initial chapter, and this is maintained through the majority of the novel. In this instance, it is particularly evident from the moment Moore enters the saloon and Canby raises the subject of the sheriff and rustling. From this point onwards, the fear of being perceived as an untrustworthy outsider is constantly returned to. This fear culminates with the news of Kinkaid's murder.
Tension is maintained throughout this work. In this initial chapter, it is brought about by the reader being invited to question the truthfulness of the characters, including Croft and Gil, as Croft explains the sense of unease between the men before Greene appears with his news of Kinkaid.
This first chapter also sets the scene with regard to the machismo of the central characters, and this includes the narrator. When Greene hurriedly arrives to inform the men of the news of Kinkaid (and this is later found to be false), he is described as being pleased about the attention he is receiving from the other men. The desire to impress, it is suggested by Croft, urges Greene on to embellish his facts. This desire to look impressive in front of other men, and to 'save face', is a recurring motif in this novel and culminates with the lynching of innocent men in Chapter Four.
The Ox-Bow Incident: Novel Summary: Chapter One