Bret Harte’s short story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, displays the good, the bad, and the exceedingly judgmental within the confines of its seven pages. In much literature of the Western genre, as well as in films depicting the “old West,” gamblers are generally a breed best left to their own devices, morally ambivalent at best and unscrupulous at worst. In Harte’s story, however, the gambler, John Oakhurst, is the story’s conscience, and its most reliable determinant of what constitutes the best action under unfavorable circumstances. The opening sentences of The Outcasts of Poker Flat reveal an individual of particular perceptiveness regarding transformations developing around him:
“As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night.”
Poker Flat, Harte points out, is changing; it is becoming dominated by those who profess to moral righteousness, but who are, in practice, the least tolerant and the least prone to follow the spirit, if not the words, of “the Good Book.” That Oakhurst is forcibly removed from the town’s borders, along with two prostitutes and a thief (or, more precisely, “a suspected sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard”), is testament to the Puritan sentiments that have enveloped this mining town. Noting that the town’s reaction to a number of troubling developments was the decision by a secretive committee to expel the ‘undesirables,’ Oakhurst actually considers himself somewhat fortunate. As the following passage describes the town’s transition, and the lengths to which these God-fearing people would go in defense of their property, Harte makes clear that Oakhurst and the others could have had it worse:
“A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons. This was done permanently in regard of two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters. I regret to say that some of these were ladies. It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment.”
Oakhurst’s most redeeming quality, however, is his level-headed approach to adversity, and the calmness with which he responds to attacks upon his character and person, as exemplified in the following quotes, the first from early in the story, the second from a little later:
“Mr. Oakhurst's calm, handsome face betrayed small concern in these indications. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause was another question. "I reckon they're after somebody," he reflected; "likely it's me."
“Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer.”
Gambling during an era when the slightest hint of impropriety, or the resentments of one’s victims, could result in death has instilled in Oakhurst the calm demeanor of one who has faced multiple adverse contingencies. Harte’s protagonist, though, is clearly the morally and intellectually superior figure, as, even having experienced the indignity of being forced out of town at gunpoint for the crime of being good at playing poker, he is still the personification of moral propriety, as when he offers his horse to one of the prostitutes: “With the easy good humor characteristic of his class, he insisted upon exchanging his own riding horse, "Five Spot," for the sorry mule which the Duchess rode.”
Beyond his moral compass, Oakhurst is also distinguished by his intelligence and common sense, as when he expresses his reservations about the small group’s desire to stop for the day and rest:
“But Mr. Oakhurst knew that scarcely half the journey to Sandy Bar was accomplished, and the party were not equipped or provisioned for delay. This fact he pointed out to his companions curtly, with a philosophic commentary on the folly of "throwing up their hand before the game was played out."
Finally, and most importantly, John Oakhurst exemplified the finest of attributes – the willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for that of others. Their situation dire, with the option of returning to Poker Flat the only viable one, he sends the young Tom Simson instead:
When the body of Mother Shipton had been committed to the snow, Mr. Oakhurst took the Innocent aside, and showed him a pair of snowshoes, which he had fashioned from the old pack saddle. "There's one chance in a hundred to save her yet," he said, pointing to Piney; "but it's there," he added, pointing toward Poker Flat. "If you can reach there in two days she's safe." "And you?" asked Tom Simson. "I'll stay here," was the curt reply.
Oakhurst, of course, shoots himself rather than either die from exposure and starvation or from the lynching that would almost certainly accompany a return to Poker Flat. He represents the kind of individual one hopes for under the direst of circumstances, and his death, both unnecessary and tragic, is the story’s final denouement.