Mr. John Oakhurst notices on November 23, 1850, that there is a change in the moral atmosphere of Poker Flat, a California gold-mining settlement. His premonition is correct, as a secret committee has determined, in its local prejudice, to rid the community of certain undesirable people. Two men are executed, and four alleged reprobates are banished, including Oakhurst. The other exiles are two prostitutes, known as the Duchess and Mother Shipton, and a thief called Uncle Billy.
After an armed escort abandons them on the outskirts of the settlement, with a warning never to return, they decide to head for Sandy Bar, a camp that has not yet experienced the regenerating influences of Poker Flat. It is a long day’s journey through the mountains, and by noon the Duchess declares that she will go no farther without a rest. Although Oakhurst advises against stopping, the others, under the influence of liquor, refuse to move. The gambler does not drink, because he believes that it would interfere with his profession. For the first time since he became a gambler, he is lonely and depressed. He studies his pathetic companions, now sleeping, but he does not abandon them.
Oakhurst’s reverie is broken by the sound of his name. Tom Simson, a youth known as The Innocent of Sandy Bar, ascends the trail, followed by Piney Woods. They are on their way to Poker Flat to get married and to seek their fortune. Simson knows the gambler because he was once in a poker game with him. Oakhurst won the youth’s entire fortune, but he returned it with the advice that Simson should never gamble again. The kind act won for the gambler a devoted friend.
The Innocent reports that he has an extra mule with provisions, and that he has located a roofless cabin. Despite Oakhurst’s protest, the others decide to accept Simson’s offer, and they make camp in the cabin. It snows during the night, and in the morning Oakhurst discovers that Uncle Billy has absconded with the mules and most of the supplies. The snow forces the group to take refuge in the camp. A roof is made of pine boughs, and the wait for the end of the storm begins. Simson provides an accordion and a copy of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad (750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) for entertainment.
The snow, however, does not abate, and the food supply dwindles. On the tenth day of being snowbound, Mother Shipton, thought to be the strongest of the party, weakens. She reveals to Oakhurst that she has saved her share of the rations from the last week so that the girl, Piney Woods, will have a better chance to survive, and then she dies. The gambler assumes that they will all die soon unless something is done. He sends Simson on the difficult journey to Poker Flat in an attempt to get help. Oakhurst accompanies him for part of the way, and the Duchess and Piney Woods are left alone in the cabin. They fall asleep in each other’s arms. That is the way they are discovered by a tardy rescue party several days later. The third body is found under a tree at the head of the gulch. A note, printed on the deuce of clubs, is pinned to the tree with a bowie knife. It states that John Oakhurst had a streak of bad luck and handed in his checks on December 7, 1850. He had been shot by his own gun.
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” opens as John Oakhurst, a gambler (and a minor character from Harte’s earlier “The Luck of Roaring Camp”), steps onto the main street of Poker Flat on November 23, 1850. He realizes that the citizens of Poker Flat are continuing their purge of undesirable elements and that he may be among the next lynched or driven out of town. He observes, ironically, their vigilante tactics and concludes that the town is “experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it.”
Oakhurst, a stock character in later Westerns, is correct in his observations and faces the judgment calmly. He is the prototype of the philosophical gambler found in Westerns and in country and western music. Oakhurst, along with a young woman known as The Duchess, another older woman called Mother Shipton, and a robber and drunkard called Uncle Billy, is escorted to the edge of Poker Flat and forbidden to return. With no provisions except liquor and with winter approaching, the outcasts leave Poker Flat and travel toward another mining camp, Sandy Bar, that is “distant a day’s severe travel.” Though Oakhurst, always the gentleman, exchanges his riding horse with the Duchess’s mule, she grows tired by midday and insists that she will go no further. Despite Oakhurst’s better judgment, the group stops.
After the two women and Uncle Billy drink themselves into oblivion, Oakhurst, who does not drink, contemplates the little group. It is a moment of awareness: “As he gazed at his recumbent fellow exiles, the loneliness begotten of his pariah trade, his habits of life, his very vices, for the first time seriously oppressed him.” Still, it does not occur to Oakhurst to desert “his weaker and more pitiable companions.”
As Oakhurst contemplates, he is interrupted by the arrival of Tom Simson, “The Innocent,” who recognizes Oakhurst as the gambler who returned Tom’s forty dollars and steered him away from gambling. Tom is with Piney Woods, “a stout, comely damsel of fifteen.” They plan to marry in Poker Flat.
Tom and Piney (the “virgin”), unaware of the nature of the group of outcasts, decide to stop for the night. They are carrying provisions that they unload into a nearby dilapidated shack in preparation for the night’s stay. The couple provides a contrast to the outcasts and, later, they are the vehicle for revealing better sides of Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, and The Duchess.
During the night, a snowstorm moves in, and Uncle Billy slips out of the camp with the provisions mule. Early the next morning, Oakhurst discovers the theft, but to protect the innocents, he says that Uncle Billy has gone for provisions. The Duchess and Mother Shipton, fully aware of what has happened, go along with Oakhurst’s story. Harte sketches the following days, during which the group is snowed in, with compassion and humor. Tom calls the Duchess “Mrs. Oakhurst,” Mother Shipton sneaks off to curse the smoke rising from the distant Poker Flat, Piney’s chatter makes the Duchess blush through her heavy makeup, and, finally, Tom retells Homer’s Iliad (c. 725 b.c.e.) in vernacular to entertain the group.
The deaths of the outcasts are clearly foreshadowed, but the dignity of their last actions reflects Harte’s recurrent theme that there is good in the worst of people, Uncle Billy appearing to be an exception. Mother Shipton starves herself to save her provisions for Piney. Oakhurst builds snowshoes so Tom can go for help and then accompanies Tom on the first part of the journey. After Tom has gone on, Oakhurst shoots himself, presumably so he will not take the provisions the others need to survive. The Duchess, who remains behind with Piney, finally realizes that death is approaching. The way they are found tells the story of their deaths: “And so reclining, the younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep.” Hart includes a final theme of redemption by adding that “an equal peace . . . dwelt upon them.”
Oakhurst, a gambler to the end, had “settled himself coolly to the losing game before him.” The final image is of him. He has pinned the deuce of clubs with his epitaph written on it to a tree with his bowie knife. Harte’s narrator concludes of John Oakhurst that he was “at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.”