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Law and order, symbolized by the sheriff, Davies, and other people who uphold it, is the protagonist of the novel. Above everyone else, Davies tries to maintain law and order in the absence of the sheriff. Wanting to adhere to a formal system of justice, he opposes the formation of the posse and sends Art to call the sheriff and the judge.
The antagonist of the novel is a variety of people who go against law and order. The first group is composed of the cattle rustlers, who have stolen a thousand head of cattle and killed Kinkaid. The second group is composed of the men from Bridger's Wells who take law and order in their own hands in the absence of the sheriff. They form a posse, under the leadership of Tetley, and go out to dispense their own form of justice to the cattle rustlers. Art and Gil, two friends who have recently come to live in Bridger's Wells, join the posse. Even though they know that lynching is not just, they feel they have to join in order to gain acceptance.
The posse arrives in Ox-Bow Valley, where the cattle rustlers are staying. When one of the rustlers, Juan Morez, tries to escape, Tetley orders that they be killed. Murder is certain to take place.
The story ends in a tragedy. One of the cattle rustlers is shot, and two of them are lynched. Then Gerald Tetley kills himself to keep his word that he will die if a lynching takes place. When Major Tetley hears about the death of his son, he too commits suicide, feeling he is a failure in his attempt to transform his son into a "man." Davies also feels defeated and blames himself for the murders. Art is also wounded in the shoulder, a symbolic punishment for his failure to make the correct decision.