Read story by Stephen Crane online.
Stephen Crane's story more resembles a Western tall tale, broken into four distinct theatrical acts that fit together like puzzle pieces, telling a story of frontier life that is wry, even sardonic. Told third-person omniscient, the first part observes the groom, Jack Potter, with his bride on a train in Texas, headed for Yellow Sky. We learn that "The bride was not pretty, nor was she very young." But they appear happy. We learn, privy to Potter's thoughts, that they have married impulsively. Then we learn he is town marshal of Yellow Sky. As the train arrives in town, they are both quiet and pensive. The second section of the story takes place at a saloon in town, just as the train is pulling in. The people drinking there learn that "Scratchy Wilson's drunk, and has turned loose with both hands." This is a dangerous situation and the saloonkeeper immediately shutters the place and advises everyone to stay there and prepare to go to the floor if necessary. Scratchy (with too good of a first name to use the last) is "a wonder with a gun—a perfect wonder." They wish Potter were in town. In the third section, Scratchy appears, shooting, carrying on, and intimidating the people in town, including those in the saloon. He's looking for Potter himself. He has a grudge to settle. And the fourth section is the confrontation between Potter and Scratchy. I hesitate to give it away, in the name of spoiler protection for a 118-year-old short story, but this is the point where it feels more like a tall tale, or a story from a song or something. For God's sake go read it now I'm going to give it away. Potter is unarmed because he is returning from his wedding with his wife. When Scratchy learns that Potter is not only unarmed, but also newly married, he puts up his gun and leaves the scene. Under the circumstances, Scratchy can't kill him. "His feet made funnel-shaped tracks in the heavy sand." Over and out, that's it. The turn is so abrupt and surprising it almost seems silly, and then just as quickly charming. We don't know enough about Potter and his bride to say they are in love, but they bear a kind of tentative self-consciousness that makes it plain they have regard for one another. Potter is well liked in the town too. So is Scratchy, for that matter, except when he's drunk. Potter already had to shoot him once on account of that, which is the source of the grudge. The scene from inside the saloon in the third part showed how potentially dangerous he really was. Crane sets our expectation for violence almost perfectly. We're just wondering how bad it's going to be. The relief when it all turns out to be a lark is palpable—and overwhelms, at least for the moment, any disappointment that it's just a lark and stunt after all. It's a good story—lots of good color too.
Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine