The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

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What happens in The Outcasts of Poker Flat?

In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," four troublemakers are banished from Poker Flat. They rest at a cabin overnight and wake up to find that one member of the group has absconded with the horses. The others are found dead at the end of the story.

  • John Oakhurst, a gambler, lives in Poker Flat, a California gold-mining town. In 1850, he and three others are banished from the town.

  • The other three people are Uncle Billy, a thief, and the Duchess and Mother Shipton, two prostitutes. They later meet 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 in a cabin after the snowstorm. At the end of the story, the rest of the group is found dead.

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,877 words.)