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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Who joins the outcasts at camp in The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and what effect do they have?

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In Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," certain disreputable characters are told to leave town and are "forbidden to return at peril of their lives."  With ironic humor, Harte describes the "expatriated party" as "The Duchess" and "Mother Shipton," two prostitutes; "Uncle Billy," a drunkard and a thief; and the main character, Mr. Oakhurst, a gambler.

As the group heads for the next settlement, Sandy Bar, all but Mr. Oakhurst become drunk and wish to stop for the night despite the gambler's urgings that they continue because they do not have adequate provisions.  As they camp for the night, "a horseman slowly ascended the trail."  It is Tom Simson, a young man who lost to Oakhurst his fortune.  But, Oakhurst returned it to him, telling the "Innocent," "Don't try it again."  The Innocent is accompanied by his fiancee, Piney Woods.  Oakhurst has "a vague idea that the situation was not felicitous" as Tom tells the members of Oakhurst's party that he has provisions and they can camp together in a log-house he has discovered along the trail. Confronted by this charitable naivete, the prostitutes warm to the innocence of Piney and take a motherly interest in her.  To the accompaniment of an accordion, the group sings around the fire a "rude camp-meeting hymn." It is at this point that the jaded spirits of the women are lifted.

With fatalistic calm, Oakhurst realizes after a snowstorm during the night, that

Luck is a mighty queer thing.  All you know about it for certain is that it's bound to change. And it's finding our when it's going to change that makes you.

With the "change of luck," the campers are snowbound.  Mother Shipton, who has saved her food for others, dies because of her redemption of soul.  Uncle Billy, uncoverted, runs off with the mules.  Oakhurst, who has fashioned some snowshoes, tells The Innocent there is a chance for him to save Piney if he goes to Poker Flat for help.  "I'll stay here," he tells Tom, knowing that he is forbidden to enter the settlement.

Insturctiing the others that he is going to accompany The Innocent "as far as the canyon," Oakhurst kisses the Duchess, leaving her amazed at his show of emotion.  The two women, left along find themselves unable to feed the fire; huddled together, they freeze to death.  When discovered, "you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that had sinned." 

John Oakhurst is found dead, a bullet in his heart, a heart that had the charity to give up his chances for the women.  He has written upon a playing card that he "handed in his checks."  He, too, has learned virtue.  All but Uncle Billy have been affected by Tom Simson's innocent love, charity, and reciprocation of Oakhurst's kindness to him. They die better people than they have been in Poker Flat.

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