While all of the characters of Bret Harte's "Outcasts of Poker Flat" easily engage the reader's sympathy, with the exception of the treacherous Uncle Billy, it's difficult not to feel that the heroic self-sacrifice of Mother Shipton makes her the most admirable of the group.
In a story with redemption as a prominent theme, the gambler John Oakhurst can surely lay claim to redeeming qualities. He displays a calm grace under pressure, treats the women with unexpected chivalry, and treats the young couple with kind solicitude. But young Tom Simpson is yet more admirable in sharing his provisions and shelter with the group of pariahs, although unwisely, as it turns out.
But, it's the cantankerous town madam, Mother Shipton, who makes the brave decision to sacrifice her life by donating her unconsumed weekly ration of food to the young girl Piney, so that she might survive the ordeal. When the amazed Oakhurst says, "You've starved yourself." Mother Shipton querulously replies, "That's what they call it," turns her face to the wall, and dies.