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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Discussion Topic

The events and discoveries at the camp in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"

Summary:

In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," the camp experiences a series of events and discoveries that reveal the characters' true natures. They find themselves stranded due to a snowstorm, leading to acts of self-sacrifice and camaraderie. The group discovers their capacity for compassion and resilience in the face of hardship, ultimately highlighting themes of redemption and human dignity.

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In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat", what happens to the travelers at the camp?

The short answer to your question is that most of them die. Uncle Billy runs off with the mules and supplies the first night, and Tom Simson walks back to Poker Flat for help on a pair of improvised snow shoes. Everyone else either starves to death or (in the case of Oakhurst) commits suicide.

In a larger sense, what “happens” is that this group of outcasts forms a kind of community. Even though the travelers have been run out of town as undesirables, when they realize their predicament, they band together and care for each other. This is particularly true of Mr. Oakhurst, the detached gambler. He knows from the beginning that the decision of the group to camp in the mountains is a mistake that likely will cost them their lives, yet he does not force them on, nor does he abandon them as Uncle Billy does. It’s as if he decides to embrace his better instincts. As his companions build a fire and soothe themselves with drink, Oakhurst “gazed at his recumbent fellow exiles, [and] the loneliness begotten of his pariah trade, his habits of life, his very vices, for the first time seriously oppressed him.” Rather than “playing the game out” and pushing on, Oakhurst decides that perhaps staying with this group is a better “game.” At any rate, his decision and his care for his companions turns the snowy mountain hut into a much more upright community than the town that had rejected them.

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In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat", what happens to the travelers at the camp?

The shortest answer possible to your question is this: all but two of the travelers die at the camp.  

The travelers that wind up at the camp are John Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, Duchess, Tom Simson, Piney Woods, and Uncle Billy.  John Oakhurst had wanted to push on through the day and make the next town, but the group forced him to rest with them.  That was a mistake, because a storm came up and snowed them all in . . . except Uncle Billy.  During the night, he stole the group's horses and supplies.  After 10 days of being snowed in and starving, John Oakhurst told Tom Simson to take the rest of the supplies and go back to Poker Flat and bring help.  By the time help arrived, Mother Shipton, Duchess, and Piney had either frozen or starved to death.  John Oakhurst shot himself. 

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What happens to the four outcasts at the end of "Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

There are four main outcasts in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” who end up dying or disappearing throughout the story.  The first outcast to go is Uncle Billy.  On the group’s first night outside of Poker Flat, Uncle Billy leaves the camp and steals their transportation and food.  Mother Shipton dies of starvation half-way through the story.  When the outcasts realize that Uncle Billy has left with their food, they must ration the food.  Mother Shipton decides not to eat anything in order to save the food for the younger girls – Piney (not an outcast) and the Dutchess.  The Dutchess ends up freezing to death while waiting for John Oakhurst to return and John Oakhurst finally kills himself at the end of the story.

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What do the searchers find at "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" camp, and how do they treat the outcasts?

The snowstorm that stranded the doomed group in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" continued throughout the week, and the fire in the outcasts' makeshift shelter finally went out. The Duchess rested

... her head upon Piney's shoulder, spoke no more. And so reclining, the younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep.

It was the sleep of death, and soon their bodies were covered with snow, like "white-winged birds"--like angels who had decided that the Duchess's past sins should be forgotten, and her

... human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.

When the rescue party finally arrived from Poker Flat two days later, they found the women covered in snow. When the rescuers gently wiped the snow from their faces with "pitying fingers,"

... you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other's arms.

Not far away they found Oakhurst's body--dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound in the heart. The rescue party, perhaps recognizing the callow nature of their decision to bar the group from the town, now treated them with the reverence they had not received in life, but had now earned in death.

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What happens to the travelers at the camp in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

The travelers who come through the camp, Tom Simson, otherwise known as the "Innocent," and Piney Woods, with whom Tom has run away, stay with the outcasts from Poker Flat for a week. When the snowstorms do not abate, Tom rides to Poker Flat for help, and the women huddle together in the cold cabin where they have run out of wood. Piney freezes to death, as do the other women. Mr. Oakhurst dies in a gulch outside.

Because the dissolute Uncle Billy absconds with the provisions and the mules, Mr. Oakhurst and a woman from the saloon, named Duchess, with another known as "Mother Shipton" are left with nothing on which to survive and no means of traveling through the high country where they have been stranded. When Tom Simson and his love, Piney Woods, come through, Tom recognizes Mr. Oakhurst because he once returned to Tom all the money he had lost to Oakhurst in a poker game. After Uncle Billy leaves the camp, Tom charitably offers to share their supplies. Mr. Oakhurst does not reveal the rapscallion Billy for what he is, hoping to not alarm the young couple. 

With Mr. Oakhurst's calm demeanor and the optimistic innocence of Tom, who does not realize the danger, the others become more cheerful. When Tom sets out for Poker Flat to seek rescuers, Mr. Oakhurst goes part of the way with him, leaving the women in the cabin. After the rescuers come, it is too late for Mother Shipton and the Duchess and Piney, who are still hugging each other in frozen embraces:

...pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, [and] you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away.

At the head of a gulch, a poker card is found with the self-inscribed epitaph of Mr. Oakhurst pinned to a pine tree with a bowie knife:

Beneath this tree
Lies the body of
John Oakhurst
who struck a streak of bad luck
on the 23rd of November, 1850....

He lay in the snow with a bullet in his heart and a Derringer at his side, "once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat."

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Who joins the outcasts at camp in The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and what effect do they have?

In Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," certain disreputable characters are told to leave town and are "forbidden to return at peril of their lives."  With ironic humor, Harte describes the "expatriated party" as "The Duchess" and "Mother Shipton," two prostitutes; "Uncle Billy," a drunkard and a thief; and the main character, Mr. Oakhurst, a gambler.

As the group heads for the next settlement, Sandy Bar, all but Mr. Oakhurst become drunk and wish to stop for the night despite the gambler's urgings that they continue because they do not have adequate provisions.  As they camp for the night, "a horseman slowly ascended the trail."  It is Tom Simson, a young man who lost to Oakhurst his fortune.  But, Oakhurst returned it to him, telling the "Innocent," "Don't try it again."  The Innocent is accompanied by his fiancee, Piney Woods.  Oakhurst has "a vague idea that the situation was not felicitous" as Tom tells the members of Oakhurst's party that he has provisions and they can camp together in a log-house he has discovered along the trail. Confronted by this charitable naivete, the prostitutes warm to the innocence of Piney and take a motherly interest in her.  To the accompaniment of an accordion, the group sings around the fire a "rude camp-meeting hymn." It is at this point that the jaded spirits of the women are lifted.

With fatalistic calm, Oakhurst realizes after a snowstorm during the night, that

Luck is a mighty queer thing.  All you know about it for certain is that it's bound to change. And it's finding our when it's going to change that makes you.

With the "change of luck," the campers are snowbound.  Mother Shipton, who has saved her food for others, dies because of her redemption of soul.  Uncle Billy, uncoverted, runs off with the mules.  Oakhurst, who has fashioned some snowshoes, tells The Innocent there is a chance for him to save Piney if he goes to Poker Flat for help.  "I'll stay here," he tells Tom, knowing that he is forbidden to enter the settlement.

Insturctiing the others that he is going to accompany The Innocent "as far as the canyon," Oakhurst kisses the Duchess, leaving her amazed at his show of emotion.  The two women, left along find themselves unable to feed the fire; huddled together, they freeze to death.  When discovered, "you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that had sinned." 

John Oakhurst is found dead, a bullet in his heart, a heart that had the charity to give up his chances for the women.  He has written upon a playing card that he "handed in his checks."  He, too, has learned virtue.  All but Uncle Billy have been affected by Tom Simson's innocent love, charity, and reciprocation of Oakhurst's kindness to him. They die better people than they have been in Poker Flat.

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