The Sierra Nevada Mountains are unforgiving in the winter. This is the setting of the story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Bret Harte. This poignant story involves a motley group of people who are caught in a blizzard which has deadly results.
The story involes John Oakhurst, a gambler, who has been thrown out of Poker Flat along with three other people: the Duchess, a young, frail prostitute; Mother Shipton, an older prostitute; and a shiftless criminal Uncle Billy. The town was bent on ridding itself of any person of ill repute.
All of them were given an animal to ride and a few provisions and sent out into the wilderness to find another place to lodge. They were on the road to Sandy Bar, another town that did not have the same moral stance. They were not equipped to make it all the way to the other camp.
The group met another pair of travelers who were headed to Poker Flat. Tom Simson and Piney Wood had run away from Sandy Bar to be married. Tom had been named the Innocent by Oakhurst when he played and beat Tom in a game of cards.
Who is Piney Wood?
Piney was only fifteen and her father objected to her marrying Tom. The author describes Piney: “a stout comely damsel of fifteen.” She was a giggly, inexperienced, young girl. Encouraged by Oakhurst to be on their way, the Innocent insists on staying the night with the group. They find a broken down shack and settle for the night.
Piney’s character serves as a foil for the other worldly women. She attaches herself to the ladies and never questions their morals or character. The Duchess and Piney engage in girl talk, and Mother Shipton shows some friendliness.
The blizzard that begins seals the doom of the outcasts. The travel ahead would be too treacherous in this weather. They could not return to Poker Flats unless they wanted to be shot on sight. During the night, the treacherous Uncle Billy steals the horses. He did not get the provisions which were stored in the cabin.
Both Tom and Piney had a youthful exuberance that rubs off on the more cynical outcasts. Piney draws the women in with her chattering and laughing. The ladies begin to call Piney “the child.” They treat her like she was their own daughter. Through the course of the days, the Duchess assumed the care of Piney. Mother Shipton was the first to sicken and die. The older woman had not eaten for seven days saving her rations to give to Tom and Piney.
Finally, Tom heads for Poker Flat to try to get help for the group. Piney and he kiss good bye. Oakhurst says that he will accompany the innocent up to the canyon. His intent was to go and allow the women to have his share of the provisions.
The blizzard comes again. The two women put their arms around each other. The fire goes out. The Duchess breaks the silence:
“Piney, can you pray?”
“No, dear,” said Piney'
...putting her head upon Piney’s shoulder, spoke no more...the younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep.
When they were found frozen together, they both looked angelic.
Thematically, outside appearances do not always convey what is in the heart. The beauty of the story is found in the guileless acceptance of the outcasts by the runaways. The Innocent and Piney teach the outcasts lessons of humanity, which allow the good qualities of the others to spring forth.