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The short story “The bride comes to Yellow Sky” by Stephen Crane, tells the story of a Marshal, Jack Potter; who brings his new wife home to the “frontier” town of Yellow Sky in Texas. The story takes place in the early 1890’s, in what used to be the Old West but which now is slowly and inevitably being civilized. The climax of the story is the stereotypical gunfight which the readers, through remarks like: “He goes out and fights Scratchy when he gets on one of these tears”, are being led to believe will take place between the local gunman and the Marshal. When Potter averts the gunfight, the reader senses that Stephen Crane not only confirms that such gunfights are a thing of the past, but that he is in fact describing the “end of an era”.
The last frontier
To understand the significance of the changes in Yellow Sky it’s essential to take a closer look at the influence the frontiers had on the people living there. The word frontier was borrowed from the French in the 15th century and means “borderland”, and normally applies to the region of a country that borders to another country. It is a North American phenomenon to give the word frontier the meaning of “a region at the edge of a settled area”.
People living in the West had to be brave, tough and resourceful. The hard life in the frontiers changed the people. Frederick Jackson Turner made a “Frontier thesis” where he claims that it was the country’s westward expansion, the recurring frontiers, that forged the rugged and unique American identity. The American identity was forged in the junction between the savagery of wilderness and the civilization of settlement. The settlers developed the power to tame the wild, and the frontier environment promoted nationalism, individualism and democracy.
When Potter comes home with his new bride, he feels that he have committed an extraordinary crime by not warning the town of his decision to marry the girl. He knows that the arrival of his new bride will bring about changes in the town, and is sure that “the burning of the new hotel” is the only thing that can exceed it. The bride is a symbol of the East and represents change, the transition from the Old West to the New West.
Another sign of change is the fact that Potter has gotten married in the first place. Marshals in the Old West apparently did not marry. This was most likely a result of their need to be free of such domestic entanglements. In frontier towns, such as Yellow Sky, being a marshal was a dangerous job and not the kind of job a family man would like to have. The marshal was supposed to keep law and order in the town, and would have to deal with gunmen like Scratchy. Potter’s decision to marry shows that times have changed and his subconscious tells him that it’s safe to marry now. The last frontier is closed and the Indians are put in reservation. The West is settled and civilization has reached the Old West.
A gunfighter is often described as a person who has got a reputation as being dangerous with a gun. Gunfighters, or gunslingers as they were also called, could be a bank robber, an outlaw or a murderer who took advantage of the frontier and tried to hide in the wilderness. From there they would take periodic raids. Some of the most know gunfighters from the Old West are Billy the Kid, The Dalton brothers, Jesse James, “Sundance Kid” and “Butch Cassidy”. A gunfighter could also be an agent of the state, a lawman. Some of the most famous lawmen are Wyatt Earp, Pat Garret and William Barclay Masterson. Scratchy’s description as “a perfect wonder” with guns leads the reader to understand that he is a gunfighter. This is confirmed when he further on is described as “the last one of the old gang that used to hang out along the river”. The fact that Potter usually goes out and fights Scratchy when he has “turned loose with both hands”, and lives to tell about it, indicates that Potter too is a gunfighter.
Even though Scratchy is determined to preserve “the good old days”, his clothes reveal the extent to which even hi has been influenced by the East. Hi is described as a “man in a maroon-coloured flannel shirt”, made by “some Jewish women on the east side of New York”, and he is wearing boots that have red tops with gilded imprints, “made by little sledding boys on the hillside of New England”. His clothes are purchased for purpose of decoration rather then utilitarian value.
The railroad played a major role in the civilization of the West. They moved the settlers and their supplies far into the wilderness, and provided what the region could not have had without it, the basis for a durable economy and for a permanent population to grow.
From lonesome cowboys to sheep herders
The building of the railroad also made way for a new business, the open-range cattle industry. In the period from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, about two decades after the Civil War, an open-range cattle industry flourished, originating in Texas and Spanish Mexico. The Spaniards had in the 18th century been bringing cattle into Texas where they had been allowed to run wild and to multiply. At the end of the Civil War the cattle numbered about five millions. Texas ranchers learned that while the cattle only sold for as much as three or four dollars in Texas, they could get 35-40 dollars in northern markets. They decided to make the long journey north to the railroad towns where the cattle would be hauled into train wagons and driven to larger cities. The route from Texas to Abilene was 1.000 miles long and became known as the “Chisholm Trail”, named after Jesse Chisholm. It could take the cowboys up to two months to move the cattle from Texas to Abilene. If they moved them to fast the cattle would loose weight and it would be difficult to sell them. The most important cow towns in the West were Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City and Caldwell. Many of the cowboys were former soldiers from both the Confederacy and the Union, who came home to ruined hometowns and found no future there. They went west to seek work. By 1870 cattle ranches had spread northward into present-day Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Between 1860 and 1880, the cattle population in these areas increased from 130,000 to 4.5 million. In some of the cow towns the citizens got nervous when the cattlemen stayed to long, due to delays in the shipping or other herd conditions, so the town councils hired gunmen as a police force to keep order. Despite its huge success the cattle kingdom came to an end in the late 1880’s. There were several factors that lead to the end of the open range. Two disastrous winters and a blistering summer in 1886-1887 killed many cattle and the once that made it to the market were in such a bad shape that the prices plummeted. The open range were also being settled by farmers, and the fact that the farmers had started using barbed wire around their properties also made it hard for the cattlemen to find water and food enough for the herds. The cattle kingdom never recovered. The West was being settled and the time of the lonesome cowboy was over.
Code of the West
The further west the frontier came the more the people gave up their identity as Europeans and became Americans. This change made way for a new code of behaviour, “The code of the West”. This code came as a result of that there were no laws on the rangeland. The lack of written laws made it necessary for the people to make their own laws. These laws were never written down but they were respected everywhere on the range. The code represented a way of life that had its base in hospitality, loyalty, respect for the land and fair play. Earlier the people had followed the British common law that said you had to have your back to the wall before you could use deadly force to protect yourself. This changed and when threatened you no longer had a duty to retreat. In 1876 an Ohio court said that if you were attacked you no longer were ” obligated to fly”. Some of the guidelines in the code were:
“Don’t inquire into a persons past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
Never order anything weaker than whiskey.
Don’t make a threat without expecting dire consequences.
Always fill you whiskey glass to the brim.
Never shoot an unarmed or unwarned enemy. This was also known as “the rattlesnake code”: always warn before you strike. However, if a man was being stalked, this could be ignored.
Never shoot a woman no matter what.
Honesty is absolute – your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a contract.
When approaching someone from behind, give a loud greeting before you get within shooting range.”
“The code of the West, online”
Scratchy is clearly a person used to living by the code. He is expecting dire consequences when he walks around the town yelling ferocious challenges at the townspeople. He has been drinking his whiskey and is looking for a fair fight. When Potter rounds the corner Scratchy immediately accuses him of sneaking up on him, and thereby violating the code. Potter is abel to avert the gunfight when he says he is not armed, and as the code says: “honesty is absolute”. The code prevents Scrarhy from shooting, as he is not supposed to shoot an unarmed man. The townspeople also demonstrate that they to a certain point still honour the law by measuring Scrathy by what he is today and not by his past. They know he used to be a gunfighter, and yet the town seems to accept him, like a remnant from the past. As the frontier closed and the Cowboys had lost their position as rulers of the open range, the written laws caught up with the West, and the code became of less importance. The town seems to have realised this, but Scratchy clings to the life of the Old West.
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