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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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What is the climax of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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When night falls after Mother Shipton's burial and Tom Simson's departure for Poker Flats, the point in the plot of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" that creates the greatest intensity and suspense develops. This climax begins with the storm as its swirling snow returns without Mr. Oakhurst, who has not been seen since he walked with Tom Simson.  

As the Duchess stokes the fire, she sees that someone has piled beside the hut enough logs to last for a few more days. With tears filling her eyes, she now realizes that Mr. Oakhurst has accompanied Tom Simson "as far as the canyon" with no intention of returning. With difficulty, the Duchess tries to hide her fear from Piney as she returns to bed. 

The women slept but little. In the morning, looking into each other's faces, they read their fate.

The look that Piney and the Duchess give each other marks the highest point of emotional intensity as the two women realize that death is imminent.

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The climax of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" comes during the final hours of the women's lives as Piney and the Duchess huddle together before freezing to death in the snow. Mother Shipton has already died, starving herself to death in the hope that her untouched provisions will extend the other women's lives until they can be rescued. Eventually, without the strength to keep the fire burning, the Duchess places her head upon Piney's shoulders and the two die in an angelic embrace. When Tom returns with the search party, he finds that the women have

... slept all that day and the next, nor did they waken when voices and footsteps broke the silence of the camp. And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, 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.

Oakhurst's own death, described in the final paragraphs, serves as the denouement to the story.

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