The greatest irony of Bret Harte's story is not that the outcasts reveal sterling qualities, but that those who banish them are less than virtuous.
After the "body of armed men accompanied the deported wickedness of Poker Flat" to the outskirts of their settlement, the true natures of these purportedly nefarious characters are revealed. Here is their ranking:
1.John Oakhurst - the real hero of the story, the gambler demonstrates a philosophic character. Rather than hurling invectives at the citizens of Poker Flat as the others do, Oakhurst remains silent and listens with calm to the vituperative comments of the others.
With the easy good humor characteristic of his class, he insisted upon exchanging his own riding horse for the sorry mule which the Duchess rode,
Although the Duchess shows no gratitude--only "coquetry"--while Mother Shipton eyes him with "malevolence" and Uncle Billy curses him, Oakhurst is undaunted. When the Duchess halts them all, the gambler wisely counsels them that they are not half-way to the next town, Sandy Bar; however, the drunken others do not appreciate the wisdom of his urgings to move on. Nevertheless, he remains with them.
Then, when the "Innocent," Tom Simson arrives with his girlfriend, Piney Woods, Oakhurst strongly urges them to push on to Poker Flat rather than remain with the group of outcasts. His words prove true as Uncle Billy absconds with most of the supplies and all the equines. So, realizing they are snowed in without horses, Oakhurst yet remains stoic and does not trouble others as a true leader would.
When "the sun again forsook them" and the snow does not abate, the gambler "settled himself coolly to the losing game before him." He tells Tom there is still a chance for him and Piney if he can walk on snowshoes to Poker Flat. Then, he informs the Duchess he is accompanying Tom to the canyon. Instead, he leaves the others with what provisions they have and unselfishly gambles on his own life, leaving behind a playing card, inscribed with his message of bad luck.
2.Mother Shipton - After the young couple arrives, Mother Shipton "relaxes into amiability," abandoning her malevolence. Instead, she assumes a more matronly manner, urging Piney to not "chatter" when her talk makes the Duchess uncomfortable. Once the strongest of the group, Mother Shipton begins to sicken; it is not until she reveals to Oakhurst that she has been saving her food and tells Oakhurst to give it to Piney.
3.Duchess - After the exiles enter the colder Sierras and the trail becomes very challenging, the Duchess dramatically falls onto the ground, declaring that she can go no farther, so the party halts. Her selfishness becomes the nemesis of the group since they soon are trapped by snow with no escape since Uncle Billy steals the animals. However, she redeems herself somewhat as she mothers Piney, whom she calls "the child." She dies, holding Piney to her breast.
4.Uncle Billy - When this man, possessive of "felonious fingers" learns that Tom Simson, "the Innocent," has an extra mule with provisions, he has an idea that causes him to "slap his leg and cram his fist into his mouth." Of course, this thought is his selfish intention to steal the provisions and the horses and mules and abandon the others to their fates. Unlike the others, Uncle Billy has no redeeming qualities.