Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Mr. John Oakhurst notices on November 23, 1850, that there is a change in the moral atmosphere of Poker Flat, a California gold-mining settlement. His premonition is correct, as a secret committee has determined, in its local prejudice, to rid the community of certain undesirable people. Two men are executed, and four alleged reprobates are banished, including Oakhurst. The other exiles are two prostitutes, known as the Duchess and Mother Shipton, and a thief called Uncle Billy.
After an armed escort abandons them on the outskirts of the settlement, with a warning never to return, they decide to head for Sandy Bar, a camp that has not yet experienced the regenerating influences of Poker Flat. It is a long day’s journey through the mountains, and by noon the Duchess declares that she will go no farther without a rest. Although Oakhurst advises against stopping, the others, under the influence of liquor, refuse to move. The gambler does not drink, because he believes that it would interfere with his profession. For the first time since he became a gambler, he is lonely and depressed. He studies his pathetic companions, now sleeping, but he does not abandon them.
Oakhurst’s reverie is broken by the sound of his name. Tom Simson, a youth known as The Innocent of Sandy Bar, ascends the trail, followed by Piney Woods. They are on their way to Poker Flat to get married and to seek their fortune. Simson knows the gambler because he was once in a...
(The entire section is 589 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” opens as John Oakhurst, a gambler (and a minor character from Harte’s earlier “The Luck of Roaring Camp”), steps onto the main street of Poker Flat on November 23, 1850. He realizes that the citizens of Poker Flat are continuing their purge of undesirable elements and that he may be among the next lynched or driven out of town. He observes, ironically, their vigilante tactics and concludes that the town is “experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it.”
Oakhurst, a stock character in later Westerns, is correct in his observations and faces the judgment calmly. He is the prototype of the philosophical gambler found in Westerns and in country and western music. Oakhurst, along with a young woman known as The Duchess, another older woman called Mother Shipton, and a robber and drunkard called Uncle Billy, is escorted to the edge of Poker Flat and forbidden to return. With no provisions except liquor and with winter approaching, the outcasts leave Poker Flat and travel toward another mining camp, Sandy Bar, that is “distant a day’s severe travel.” Though Oakhurst, always the gentleman, exchanges his riding horse with the Duchess’s mule, she grows tired by midday and insists that she will go no further. Despite Oakhurst’s better judgment, the group stops.
After the two women and Uncle Billy drink themselves into oblivion, Oakhurst, who does not drink, contemplates the little group. It is a moment of awareness: “As he gazed at his recumbent fellow exiles, the loneliness begotten of his pariah trade, his habits of life, his very vices, for the first time seriously oppressed him.” Still, it does not occur to Oakhurst to desert “his weaker and more pitiable companions.”
(The entire section is 750 words.)