What two specific forces do all the characters have to face in "The Outcasts of Poker Flats"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" presents a number of characters on the margin of society.  As such, they are expelled from the town by the self-righteous members of the "secret committee" in who wish to rid the town of "certain other objectionable characters" because from them they have suffered the lost of several thousand dollars.

After they leave town, the pariahs have two forces that they must face, that of nature, and that of each other and themselves:

Man vs. Man/Himself

As the party sleeps the profligate Uncle Billy untethers the mules, stealing them and disappearing in the snow.  Mr. Oakhurst discovers this fact early in the night, but leads the others to believe that Uncle Billy accidentally stampeded the mules and not left them bereft intentionally. 

When the winter storm continues, "Mr. Oakhurst settled himself coolly to the losing game before him."  Leaving the women after sending Tom to Poker Flat, Oakhurst walks out toward the canyon and shoots himself, surrendering to his bad luck as the "strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat."

Man vs. Nature

As the outcasts have slept, a heavy snow has fallen; and, without mules they cannot travel. So, they must hope that they have enough provisions until the snow melts sufficiently.  Although the sun appears, the outcasts are surrounded by "drift after drift" of snow. After a week, the provisions run low;  Mother Shipton calls to Oakhurst and tells him to reach under her pillow where she has cached her provisions and starved herself to save others.  "Give 'em to the child," she tells the gambler. 

Oakhurst, who has fashioned snow shoes for Tom Simson, instructs the young man to walk to Poker Flat for help; then he kisses the Duchess and says he will accompany Tom as far as the canyon. Night falls and the Duchess find firewood as fuel to last a few days longer.  She and the other women draw together against the furious storm that "invaded the very hut."  Nature defeats the women as they freeze to death.

 

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