28 pages • 56 minutes read
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“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” is a short story by American author Stephen Crane. Published in 1898, the story parodies tropes of old westerns and addresses the themes of the death of the Old West, domesticity, and masculinity. The story details the journey of Jack Potter, marshal of the small town of Yellow Sky, as he brings his new bride from the East back to his home in Texas on the Western frontier. Once he arrives, his anticlimactic encounter with the town’s notorious scoundrel, Scratchy Wilson, illustrates the domestication of the formerly “wild” West and with it, the emasculation of its heroes and villains.
The story begins on a train heading west to Yellow Sky from San Antonio; it carries newly married Potter and his unnamed bride. Although they are a bit awkward in each other’s company, the pair seems happy and optimistic. Potter, however, is uneasy about the prospect of introducing his bride to his community. As an “important man” who is “known, liked, and feared,” he feels “guilty of a great and unusual crime” for marrying without discussing the matter with his constituents (18). Unlike the other people of Yellow Sky, who “married as it pleased them” (18), Potter’s position obligates him to honor a special set of social duties and expectations.
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The setting shifts to a saloon in Yellow Sky called The Weary Gentleman. In addition to the saloonkeeper, there are six patrons inside, including a traveling salesman, three taciturn Texans, and two Mexican farmers. As the salesman is regaling the three Texans with tales of his adventures, a young man bursts into the saloon to warn everyone that Scratchy Wilson, Yellow Sky’s most infamous outlaw, is drunk and ready to cause trouble. In the context of Old Western tales, this is a conventional setup for a shootout between the villain and the hero, typically the town’s sheriff.
Upon hearing the announcement of Scratchy’s imminent arrival, the two Mexican men immediately leave; the salesman, an outsider, struggles to understand the gravity of the situation. The saloonkeeper and the remaining patrons explain to the salesman the anticipated sequence of events: Scratchy, who is otherwise the “nicest fellow in town,” becomes “a terror when he’s drunk” (22). In this state, he will shoot wildly and without regard for human life until the valiant marshal shows up and thwarts his evildoing via the masculine tradition of a gunfight. The townspeople are accustomed to this eventuality and regard it as a form of entertainment in their otherwise sleepy town. However, they believe Potter is still in San Antonio, and they express the desire for his swift return. The saloonkeeper tells the salesman, “He shot Wilson once—in the leg. He’d come in and take care of this thing” (22).
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The next section of the narrative deals solely with Scratchy. Gunslinging and sozzled from whiskey, Scratchy is the stereotypical menace of the western tradition. With angry, bloodshot eyes, he roams the deserted streets screaming, cursing, and challenging the petrified citizens of Yellow Sky to a draw. When his requests for senseless conflict are met with nothing but silence and boarded-up doors, he waves his guns erratically in the air and shouts curses at the empty skies. Frustrated, he shoots out the windows of his best friend’s house. Still, no one responds appropriately. At this point, he recalls his “ancient enemy” (23), the marshal, and proceeds to Potter’s house, where he continues his attempts to instigate a battle. Potter, however, is not there, as he is on his way home from the train station with his new bride.
The final section of the story describes the confrontation between Potter and Scratchy once Potter approaches his house. Although the stage is set for an epic showdown between good and evil, Crane upends these expectations: No gunfight ensues. Instead, Potter informs the raving Scratchy that he isn’t carrying a gun; in fact, he just returned from San Antonio after getting married. Scratchy, clearly befuddled by his unsuccessful attempts at mayhem, is unsure what to do. Initially, he doesn’t believe that Potter is unarmed or married, but he comes to accept both details as the truth. When Potter invites Scratchy to shoot him because he’ll “never get a chance like this again,” Scratchy dejectedly says, “Well, I guess we won’t fight, Jack” (24). He then picks up his fallen gun and makes his way home, “his feet [making] deep tracks in the heavy sand” (24).
By Stephen Crane