This is a fascinating story that says a lot about how society judges people and the true nature of heroism. Having been expelled from Poker Flat by a vigilate group determined to cast out any n'er-do-wells from its society, the Duchess, a prostitute, Mother Shipton, her pimp, and John Oakhurst, renowned gambler, are left to make their way elsewhere. However, becoming trapped by a snowstorm they meet a tragic end.
What is important to focus on however is how their meeting with Tom Simson and his beloved, Piney, who are both described as innocent and naive. Not being aware of the history of the group, they treat them with respect and love. At first, the Duchess and Mother Shipton are amused and dismissive of their naivety:
As the lovers parted, they unaffectedly exchanged a kiss, so honest and sincere that it might have been heard above the swaying pines. The frail duchess and the malevolent Mother Shipton were probably too stunned to remark upon this last evidence of simplicity, and so turned without a word to the hut.
However, as time goes on, both come to love Piney. Her lack of knowledge about the past and the way she treats them with respect causes them as characters to transform morally, becoming maternal and caring for her. This love that is shown towards them causes Mother Shipton to starve herself to death so that she could give her food to Piney, and removes any moral stain from the Duchess, because when her body is found with Piney's, we are told that "you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned."
John Oakhurst is the only character who doesn't experience a transformation. He, having already shown a kind streak in his treatment of Simson, continues to display that kindness and sensitivity, yet curiously, he decides to commit suicide at the end and leave the others to die, having done all he thinks he could do for them. Perhaps the story suggests the distrust we should place in appearances. The characters that least look heroic, the Duchess and Mother Shipton, are the ones that show themselves to be true heroes, whilst John Oakhurst, the character who we expect to save the group and find a situation, in the end displays some kind of weakness and ends up taking his own life.