playing card, a two of clubs, in the center next to a hunting knife

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Discussion Topic

Mr. Oakhurst's profession and manner of death in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"

Summary:

Mr. Oakhurst is a professional gambler. He dies by committing suicide after being exiled from Poker Flat, unable to face the harsh conditions and his bleak future.

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How does Mr. Oakhurst die in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

Readers are not actually told exactly how John Oakhurst dies in this great short story; however, readers can make a fairly accurate assumption that John Oakhurst shot himself in the chest with his Derringer pistol.

And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.

John Oakhurst is found that way underneath a playing card attached to a tree. Presumably, John Oakhurst wrote his own epitaph on the playing card and shot himself in order to more quickly end his life. In his mind, the alternative was either freeze to death or starve to death. He figured there was no possible way Tom Simson would make it to town, organize a rescue party, and return in time to survive his dire circumstances. Many readers see Oakhurst as this story's heroic protagonist, but other readers just can't buy into that sentiment knowing that he likely gave up the fight and killed himself.

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How does Mr. Oakhurst die in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

Probably the best of the "undesirables" in Bret Harte's short story, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," John Oakhurst was a kind-hearted gambler who gave one last gift to his friends before departing for the canyon. After kissing the Duchess goodbye, Oakhurst secretly added wood to fuel the fire a bit longer. He then set off with Tom, the Innocent. But Oakhurst apparently knew he had little or no chance of survival because when rescuers eventually found him, they found a deuce of clubs attached to a pine tree with a Bowie knife. Included was a message:

Beneath This Tree
Lies The Body Of
JOHN OAKHURST,
Who Struck A Streak Of Bad Luck
On The 23rd Of November, 1850,
And
Handed In His Checks
On The 7th December, 1850.

Oakhurst had chosen to take his own life,

with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.

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What is Mr. Oakhurst's profession in The Outcasts of Poker Flat?

Mr. Oakhurst is a professional gambler.  As such he is intelligent, shrewd, and honest.  As a gambler, Oakhurst knows well how to assess the odds of any given situation.  When the party to which he belongs is cast out from the town, they make their way to the nearest settlement, one that is over a mountain.  Halfway to Sandy Bar, the other members of the group become exhausted and desire to camp for the night.  Oakhurst urges them to continue because they do not have sufficient provisions; however, the others, who have been drinking, ignore his reasoning.  What seems fortunate for the outcasts is the arrival of Tom Simpson with his fiancee who offers to share his provisions. 

But, unfortunately, there is a real scoundrel among them, Uncle Billy, who runs off with their mules. And, they are snowed in for a week.  At this point Oakhurst weighs the odds again, realizing that their chances for survival are extremely slim.  So, like a gambler, he knows when to fold his cards.  He provides the women with firewood, then goes out into the woods.  When his body is found with the wild card deuce "discarded" because it has brought him no luck, author Bret Harte writes that he is "the strongest and the weakest" of the group.  Interestingly, his name reveals both strength--oak--and weakness, or death--hurst (hearse).

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