The Outcasts of Poker Flat Summary

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" by Bret Harte is an 1869 story about four troublemakers who are banished from the California gold-mining town of Poker Flat.

  • John Oakhurst, a gambler, lives in Poker Flat. In 1850, he and three others are banished from the town.
  • The others are Uncle Billy, a thief, and the Duchess and Mother Shipton, two prostitutes. The group later meets two newlyweds, who help them take shelter in a storm.

  • In the morning, they find that Uncle Billy has stolen the horses and left them trapped due to a snowstorm. At the end, the group is found dead.

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750

“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.”

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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.”

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