34 pages 1 hour read

Bret Harte

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1869

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” a short story by American author Bret Harte, showcases the customs and dialect of American Western Regionalism. As one of the first American writers to popularize Regionalism, Harte paved the way for other writers in this movement. Originally written in 1869 and published in The Overland Monthly, the literary magazine of which Harte was the pioneering editor, the story thematically employs gambling terminology to depict the choices humans face when their luck dwindles. The story’s literary Realism is evident in the characters’ morally complex portrayals.

This guide cites the story as it is published on the public domain website Project Gutenberg Australia.

Content Warning: The source text depicts the suicide of a major character.

The story begins with the introduction of Mr. John Oakhurst, a gambler, walking down the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of November 23, 1850. His action of wiping red dust from his boots and the description of the town as being devoid of a spiritual presence indicate the setting is a Western American gambling town. Oakhurst is calm and unbothered by the vigilantes who have made it their mission to rid Poker Flat of misfits guilty of unlawful acts; after “the loss of thousands of dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen” (Paragraph 3), the vigilantes have formed a committee to purge the town of corruption. However, in this undertaking, the vigilantes have committed their own violent acts, including hanging two men. Oakhurst admits to himself that the vigilantes are probably looking for him, but he does not allow this to upset him.

Some members of the committee have lost money to Oakhurst while gambling, and they propose hanging him. Yet others—who have won money from Oakhurst—successfully argue for a less severe punishment: banishment from Poker Flat. Oakhurst calmly accepts his sentence. As a gambling man, he understands the uncertainty of luck and the uselessness of trying to change what life deals him.

The outcasts must leave Poker Flat with armed guards because Oakhurst is “known to be a coolly desperate man, and for whose intimidation the armed escort was intended” (Paragraph 6). The other outcasts include a sex worker well known as “The Duchess,” an older sex worker “Mother Shipton,” and the intoxicated “Uncle Billy,” also reputable as a possible “sluice-robber” (Paragraph 6). When the party reaches the outskirts of town, the guards warn the outcasts that if they value their lives, they will never return. Oakhurst allows the Duchess to ride his horse, Five Spot, while he takes her “sorry mule” (Paragraph 7), but even that act of generosity does not create any sense of community among the outcasts.

To reach Sandy Bar, their place of exile, the travelers must cross “a steep mountain range. It was distant a day’s severe travel” (Paragraph 8). The journey includes leaving the “moist, temperate regions of the foothills into the dry, cold bracing air of the Sierras” (Paragraph 8). After only a few hours traveling a difficult trail, the Duchess claims she cannot ride anymore and dismounts her horse. The other outcasts stop as well. Oakhurst does not want to stop here because he knows they have not even made it to the halfway point to Sandy Bar; additionally, the party’s provisions are too meager to accommodate such delays in travel. He pleads with the others to keep traveling, but instead, they get drunk. Oakhurst is a non-drinker, and he placidly watches as Uncle Billy’s behavior switches from combative to lethargic, the Duchess acts increasingly sentimental, and Mother Shipton falls asleep. Oakhurst knows that drinking is unconducive to his way of life as a gambler; he must always keep his focus unhindered. For the first time, he realizes that his way of life has brought him immense loneliness, and he can’t even bring himself to feel annoyed by the others: “The thought of deserting his weaker and more pitiable companions never perhaps occurred to him. Yet he could not help feeling the want of that excitement which […] was most conducive to that calm equanimity for which he was notorious” (Paragraph 10).

As the outcasts continue to rest, another person arrives on the trail. Tom Simson, the “Innocent” of Sandy Bar, sees Oakhurst and immediately greets him with excitement. Tom has admired Oakhurst ever since Oakhurst returned the money he won from Tom over a “little game” (Paragraph 11), after which he told Tom never to gamble again since he has no talent for it. Tom tells the group that not only is he heading to Poker Flat to “seek his fortune” (Paragraph 12), but he also plans to elope with his beloved Piney Woods, also with him, despite her father’s objections. Though Oakhurst urges him to continue toward town, Tom intends to set up camp with the outcasts, and he is confident they have all they need to survive—nearby, he’s discovered an abandoned log house that’s already been broken into, so they can seek shelter there. Additionally, he has an extra mule loaded with supplies. He even refers to the Duchess as “Mrs. Oakhurst,” claiming that Piney can stay with her in the log house, prompting uncontrollable laughter and inappropriate language from Uncle Billy, who removes himself from the group. He returns as the sky becomes gray and the air turns colder. Everyone gathers around the fire, and for the first time, the outcasts speak pleasantly to each other. Once darkness falls, the Duchess and Mother Shipton quietly watch Tom and Piney share a sweet kiss before parting for bed. The women sleep in the hut, and the men outside the door.

When Oakhurst awakens the next morning, the sight of snow falling urges him to wake the others to continue their journey. However, Oakhurst realizes that Uncle Billy is nowhere to be found, and the mules are missing. Thankfully, Uncle Billy did not steal the rest of their food and supplies. Realizing they are now stranded during a snowstorm, Oakhurst remains calm as he calculates that their provisions will last another 10 days.

With a warning to the Duchess and Mother Shipton to not reveal the true reason for Uncle Billy’s departure, Oakhurst informs Tom that Uncle Billy must have simply strayed from the group and inadvertently scared away the mules. Oakhurst urges Tom to continue to Poker Flat, but Tom delights in everyone being together. Tom is optimistic about the snow melting in a few days, and along with Oakhurst’s trademark calmness, this enables the three women to remain cheerful and calm as well. While Oakhurst unsuccessfully searches for the trail, the others busy themselves by using pine boughs to create a roof for the hut and clean up inside. When Oakhurst returns, he finds the group laughing and having “square fun” (Paragraph 20) around the campfire, without being under the influence of alcohol. Tom and Piney introduce an accordion and bone castanets and proceed to entertain the others by singing, “I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord, / And I’m bound to die in his army” (Paragraphs 22-23).

That night, as Oakhurst and Tom take turns keeping watch, Oakhurst discusses how unlucky they have been on this journey and how these misfortunes have now affected Tom. Oakhurst describes luck as something “bound to change. And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes you” (Paragraph 25).

On the morning of the third day, Mother Shipton views the smoke rising from Poker Flat and releases a stream of curses at the institution causing her current predicament. She confides to the Duchess that “it did her good” (Paragraph 28) and that the Duchess should “[j]ust go out there and cuss, and see” (Paragraph 28). Realizing that holding onto her resentment remains futile, Mother Shipton busies herself with caring for Piney. Even though Piney can take care of herself, Mother Shipton views Piney as a child since she neither swears nor is “improper.”

That night as the outcasts gather around the campfire, Piney suggests that they tell stories to take their minds off their hunger pangs. Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, and the Duchess do not want to relate their stories of why they are on this journey, but Tom enthusiastically tells the story of the Iliad, which he read a few months earlier when he stumbled upon a translated copy. Despite not remembering the exact wording, Tom relays the gist of the narrative, using “the current vernacular of Sandy Bar” (Paragraph 29). The story of Achilles (which Tom pronounces as “Ash-heels”) particularly fascinates Oakhurst.

Another week passes as the outcasts remain snowbound. With the prospect of finding more wood to feed the dying fire, however, the outcasts still do not complain. Tom and Piney focus on their devotion to each other, Oakhurst “settled himself coolly to the losing game before him” (Paragraph 30), and the Duchess cares for Piney. However, on the 10th night, Mother Shipton confides to Oakhurst that she is not going to make it. She instructs Oakhurst to take the provisions she has been secretly stowing away and to give them to Piney. Mother Shipton passes away later that night.

The next day, after the outcasts bury Mother Shipton, Oakhurst hands Tom a makeshift pair of snowshoes and urges him to save Piney by reaching Poker Flat in two days. Oakhurst tells Tom that he will not join him for the trip. When the Duchess asks Oakhurst if he will leave as well, he replies, “As far as the canyon” (Paragraph 32), and kisses her, which leaves the Duchess speechless.

Tom and Oakhurst leave the camp, but Oakhurst does not return that night as the snowstorm returns. As the Duchess attempts to keep the fire going, she secretly cries when she realizes that Oakhurst “had quietly piled beside the hut enough fuel to last a few days longer” (Paragraph 33). That night, the Duchess and Piney sleep side by side in the hut, attempting to stay warm from the storm’s onslaught. In the morning, they are too weak to strengthen the fire. When the Duchess asks Piney if she can pray, Piney responds with a “no,” and the two women fall asleep, with Piney cradling the Duchess’s head on her chest.

Two days later, a rescue party from Poker Flat finds the women’s bodies beneath the snow, still entwined in their embrace. They then discover Oakhurst’s lifeless body beneath one of the largest pine trees next to a canyon. There is a bullet to his heart from a nearby Derringer and a hand-written message—a suicide note—on the deuce of clubs stuck to the tree. The note explains that after experiencing a “streak of bad luck” from November 23 to December 7, 1850, Oakhurst “handed in his checks,” which, the narrator reports, makes him “at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat” (Paragraph 39).