Bret Harte's western story is certainly not a typical one. His experiences provided the material for many of his stories and helped to form the unsentimental and often cynical and even pessimistic views expressed in his writing. "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" represents these views of Harte as the citizens of Poker Flat expel Harte's main characters only after they lose money to them, not because of any justifiable moral outrage.
Once the disreputable madam Mother Shipton, the bargirl Duchess, the gambler Mr. Oakhurst, and the swindler Uncle Billy are expelled from Poker Flat, they must make their way to the next town of Sandy Bar, which is over a rather treacherous mountain range and is a "day's severe travel." Added to this challenge, the Sierras have a cold air and even snow. And, herein lies the main problem:
Mr. Oakhurst knew there was scarcely half the journey to Sandy Bar was accomplished, and the party were not equipped or provisioned for delay.
However, the Duchess rolls drunkenly out of her saddle, declaring that she will go no further; the others are also inebriated. Then, when a young man and his naive little wife arrive, he suggests that they all make camp, and against the admonitions of Mr. Oakhurst, they stay. Unfortunately, during the night there is a snowstorm and, most unfortunately, Uncle Billy has absconded with most of the supplies and the mules. The group of outcasts are stranded without the provisions they need for any more than ten days; furthermore, the snow does not abate and the outcasts are surrounded by "drifted wall of dazzling white that towered twenty feet above their heads. Without mules, they have no way of traveling to Sandy Bar. Without supplies, they cannot live long.