What happens to the travelers at the camp in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" by Bret Harte?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The travelers who come through the camp, Tom Simson, otherwise known as the "Innocent," and Piney Woods, with whom Tom has run away, stay with the outcasts from Poker Flat for a week. When the snowstorms do not abate, Tom rides to Poker Flat for help, and the women huddle together in the cold cabin where they have run out of wood. Piney freezes to death, as do the other women. Mr. Oakhurst dies in a gulch outside.

Because the dissolute Uncle Billy absconds with the provisions and the mules, Mr. Oakhurst and a woman from the saloon, named Duchess, with another known as "Mother Shipton" are left with nothing on which to survive and no means of traveling through the high country where they have been stranded. When Tom Simson and his love, Piney Woods, come through, Tom recognizes Mr. Oakhurst because he once returned to Tom all the money he had lost to Oakhurst in a poker game. After Uncle Billy leaves the camp, Tom charitably offers to share their supplies. Mr. Oakhurst does not reveal the rapscallion Billy for what he is, hoping to not alarm the young couple. 

With Mr. Oakhurst's calm demeanor and the optimistic innocence of Tom, who does not realize the danger, the others become more cheerful. When Tom sets out for Poker Flat to seek rescuers, Mr. Oakhurst goes part of the way with him, leaving the women in the cabin. After the rescuers come, it is too late for Mother Shipton and the Duchess and Piney, who are still hugging each other in frozen embraces:

...pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, [and] you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away.

At the head of a gulch, a poker card is found with the self-inscribed epitaph of Mr. Oakhurst pinned to a pine tree with a bowie knife:

Beneath this tree
Lies the body of
John Oakhurst
who struck a streak of bad luck
on the 23rd of November, 1850....

He lay in the snow with a bullet in his heart and a Derringer at his side, "once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat."

Read the study guide:
The Outcasts of Poker Flat

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