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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Student Question

What punishment is Mr Oakhurst assigned in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and why isn't he hanged?

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The gambler, Mr. Oakhurst, is banished to the outskirts of the Poker Flat, a Californian settlement. He is not hanged because he does not cheat at cards, and those who won from Oakhurst have enough sense of fairness that overrules the vindictive losers who want to hang him so they can retrieve their money. 

Poker Flat is one of those towns that sprang up during the Gold Rush in California. 

It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it.

The ruling citizens of Poker Flat have decided that too many citizens have lost money at the hands (or other body parts) of the gambler Oakhurst, the Duchess and another "professional" woman, Mother Shipton, as well as a sluice robber and general thief called "Uncle Billy." Therefore, these unsavory citizens are escorted from the settlement, and when they are reach a certain point, "[T]he exiles were forbidden to return at the peril of their lives.

Interestingly, Mr. Oakhurst is the hero in two of Harte's stories. He is a congenial man, generous, and--as a gambler very well may be--rather insouciant when confronted with danger. Furthermore, he is a realistic character modeled after Lucky Bill, a gambler who possessed traits such as those given Oakhurst. Lucky Bill, unfortunately, did meet his end on the scaffold, hanged by a vigilance committee, not unlike those self-righteous hypocrites who expel Oakhurst and the others.

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