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Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” portrays six unique characters who through fate are penned together to try to survive a winter blizzard. Four of the characters have been thrown out of Poker Flat because of the town’s attempt to improve its morality.
John Oakhurst was a gambler; Duchess, a young prostitute; Mother Shipton, an older prostitute; and Uncle Billy, a drunkard and thief---Each of them was given a horse and few supplies and escorted out of town. They were told not to return to Poker Flat in peril of their lives. The odd group sets out for the next village called Sandy Bar.
On the way, the group meets a young man and his bride-to-be. This pair is on their way to Poker Flat to be married. Oakhurst knew the young man Tom Simson as the “Innocent from Sandy Bar.” Oakhurst had played Simson in a poker game. Obviously, the boy knew little of the world’s vices. Oakhurst beat him soundly; Tom lost all of his money [forty dollars] to the clever gambler. After the game, Oakhurst drew Tom aside and told him that he should never gamble again; then, he gave the boy his money back and sent him on his way. From that moment forward, Tom became a devotee of Oakhurst.
The innocent was the proper name for Tom. He had no understanding of the “way of the world.” The women who accompanied Oakhurst were just pretty ladies; in fact, he thought that the Duchess was “Mrs. Oakhurst.”
Accompanying Tom was Piney Woods. She had been a waitress at the local café and bar. She and Tom had been engaged for a long time. However, Piney’s dad refused for her to marry Tom.
There was a remembrance of this in his boyish and enthusiastic greeting of Mr. Oakhurst. He had started, he said, to go to Poker Flat to seek his fortune. "Alone?" No, not exactly alone; in fact (a giggle), he had run away with Piney Woods. They had been engaged a long time, but old Jake Woods had objected, and so they had run away to be married… how lucky it was they had found a place to camp and company.
The couple was going to Poker Flat to get married.
What does the reader learn about Oakhurst from his treatment of Tom? He is basically a good man. In his efforts to help Tom keep his money, Oakhurst shows that he cares about the boy. The town had thrown Oakhurst out not for cheating but for beating the important men of the town. They wanted their money back from him. A gentleman, courtly, well-mannered and caring---Oakhurst proves himself as a worthy protagonist for the story.
Tom has no understanding of the seedy side of life. He believes that the group are just people who have decided to change their lots and move to Sandy Bar. Longing to begin his life, he would never treat Piney with anything but respect. This is an admirable young man.
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