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The major theme of the novel revolves around the necessity of law and order. The problem in Bridger's Wells begins with a gang of cattle rustlers who steal from the Drew ranch. The lawlessness intensifies when Kinkaid, one of the hands on the Drew ranch, is killed. The men in town assume that the cattle rustlers are guilty. They decide to take law and order into their own hands even though Davies tries to convince them to follow the normal pattern of justice. Ignoring his advice, the men form a posse and go in search of the cattle rustlers. When they are found, three of the rustlers are killed; Martin is shot and the other two are lynched. The townsfolk are then guilty of murder in a situation that has degenerated into total lawlessness and disorder.
A minor theme in the novel is the danger of going along with the crowd simply to be accepted by others. Art and Gil, as newcomers to Bridger's Wells, are anxious to be accepted in their new town. When they hear about Kinkaid's murder and the formation of the posse, they join the others, even though they do not believe that it is necessarily the right thing to do. The result of following the crowd instead of their own consciences is that Gil is shot in the shoulder and both men feel uncomfortable and guilty about what has happened.
The mood of The Ox-Bow Incident is largely somber and tragic. From the moment that Art and Gil enter the bar and find the men in serious discussion, rather than laughing and telling jokes, the mood indicates that there are large problems to be solved in the novel. When it is learned that Kinkaid has been killed, the tragic mood intensifies. As the unofficial posse rides out of Bridger's Well, there is an uneasiness about what will transpire. Things degenerate when the posse finds the cattle rustlers, assumes that they are guilty, and take matters into their own hands. Gil is wounded in the soldier, one of the cattle rustlers (Martin) is killed by gunfire, and two of the rustlers are lynched by the posse, turned mob. The weather throughout the book intensifies the somber, tragic mood, for much of the action takes place in the cold dark of night during wintertime.