By Bret Harte (1836-1902)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
.......“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is a short story. It first appeared in Overland Monthly in January 1869, when Harte was the editor of the publication.
.......The action takes place in California between November 23 and December 7, 1850, when towns grew up from the influx of people seeking fortunes by mining for gold.
John Oakhurst: Professional gambler who is forced out of the town of Poker Flat as an undesirable because he wins so much money from the townspeople.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
.......When John Oakhurst steps into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of Nov. 23, 1850, conversations stop and eyes stare. He’s a villain, after all, one of several who had earned that designation.
.......After losing several thousand dollars, two horses, and a worthy citizen, the townspeople had established a secret committee which saw to the hanging of two persons and the banishment of others, including women. A few of the committee members urged hanging Oakhurst as well, then rifling his pockets for their gambling losses.
......."It's agin justice," said Jim Wheeler, "to let this yer young man from Roaring Camp–an entire stranger–carry away our money."
.......However, cooler heads ruled that Oakhurst deserved only banishment. Armed men accompany Oakhurst and other undesirables–including “The Duchess” and “Mother Shipton,” both prostitutes, and “Uncle Billy,” a drunk suspected of sluice robbery–to the edge of town. (In gold mining, a sluice is a sloping trough, or gutter, that conveys water containing stones, pebbles, sand, and possibly gold. Grooves on its bottom separate gold from the stones and grit). There, the armed men warn the outcasts not to return to Poker Flat under penalty of death.
.......On their way into exile, Uncle Billy and the women bitterly bemoan their fate while Oakhurst remains quiet. They head for Sandy Bar, a day’s travel away over steep mountains. The road is narrow and the air dry and cold in the foothills of the mountains. They plod on until noon, when the Duchess declares she can go no farther. Oakhurst wants to go on lest the party run out of provisions. However, his fellow travelers stay put, using liquor to comfort them. Uncle Billy goes into a stupor, the Duchess becomes tearfully emotional, and Mother Shipton falls asleep. Oakhurst does not drink. As a gambler, he had cultivated the habit of staying sober.
.......While observing his surroundings–the mountains, the pine trees, the cloudy sky, the valley below–he sees a horseman coming toward him. It is young Tom Simson, from whom Oakhurst had once won $40 in Sandy Bar. Oakhurst had returned the money saying, "Tommy, you're a good little man, but you can't gamble worth a cent. Don't try it over again." Because of that magnanimous gesture, Tom admires Oakhurst as something of a god.
.......When Tom greets Oakhurst, he tells him a little about himself. He had decided to leave Sandy Bar and go to Poker Flat, he says, with his sweetheart, Piney Woods, to make his fortune and marry Piney. Her father, Jake Woods, had opposed the marriage, so they had no alternative but to run away. Piney, who is plumply attractive, rides up just then--demure and embarrassed and innocent--from behind a pine tree. Uncle Billy is about to say something untoward when Oakhurst kicks him.
.......Anyway, it seems young Tom and Piney want to join Oakhurst and his company of outcasts, but Oakhurst–who doesn’t want them tagging along–points out that they have no provisions and no place to stay. However, Tom says he has a pack mule loaded with supplies. He also found an abandonedlog house nearby. It is a roofless ruin, but it does have walls.
.......“Piney can stay with Mrs. Oakhurst,” the youth says. He thinks the Duchess is Oakhurst’s wife.
.......Uncle Billy is about to laugh but remembers Oakhurst’s foot. So he walks off up the canyon, out of hearing range, then does his laughing. When he returns, everybody is sitting by a fire talking. At that moment, an idea pops into his alcoholic brain, causing him so much amusement that he shoves a fist into his mouth to stifle a laugh.
.......That night, the women sleep in the cabin and the men near the fire. Just before dawn, Oakhurst awakens and sees snow. Uncle Billy is gone. So are all the animals. Fortunately, though, all the supplies had been placed in the cabin.
.......At first light, the snow is coming down hard and further travel is out of the question. Oakhurst tells Tom that Uncle Billy must have gotten up in the night and spooked the mules, then ran off after them. No sense frightening the young people, he thinks. But the Duchess and Mother Shipton realize what had happened–thieving Billy took them.
.......Tom immediately offers to share his supplies and seems to look forward to the time all of them will be spending together."We'll have a good camp for a week," he says, "and then the snow'll melt . . ."
.......In the evening, everyone is cheerful. As they sit around the fire, they sing songs. Piney manages to force tunes from Tom’s accordion while he raps two bone castanets. The storm stops at midnight and the skies open to glittering stars. Tom and Oakhurst take turns keeping watch, but the latter does most of the watching. He’s used to going without sleep because of his frequent all-night poker games.
.......The next day, huge snowdrifts surround the cabin. In the distance, miles away, smoke curls up from Poker flat. Mother Shipton curses the town. She then sets herself to the task of amusing Piney. After another day, they all sit again at the fire. However, the music begins to lose its magic as the food supply dwindles and hunger creeps into their stomachs. Piney proposes that they tell stories. Oakhurst, the Duchess, and Mother Shipton are less than enthusiastic about this idea, but Tom takes to it, noting that he had recently read Alexander Pope’s rendition of Homer’s ancient Greek classic, The Iliad. So they listen as the youth recites portions of the tale and mangles the pronunciation of names. He pronounces the name of famous Greek hero Achilles as “Ash-heels.”
.......A week passes and snow falls again. Eventually, the drifts around the cabin reach twenty feet. The fire is harder and harder to maintain because wood is less plentiful. But no one complains, although Mother Shipton is sick and failing fast.
.......At midnight on the tenth day, Mother Shipton–now in a very bad way–tells Oakhurst to open a bundle under her head and give the food in it to Tom and Piney. When Oakhurst opens it, he discovers a full week of rations. She had been saving her food for the young people. Mother Shipton then turns away and dies. They place her body in the snow.
.......At daylight, Oakhurst reveals a pair of snowshoes he made out of a pack saddle, then tells Tom to use them to reach Poker Flat. It’s the only way to save his sweetheart, he says. Oakhurst says he will walk out a little way with Tom, then return. Before leaving, he kisses the Duchess, which amazes her.
.......At nightfall, there is no sign of Oakhurst. It is snowing again. While the Duchess tends the fire, she notices that someone had piled wood next to the fire–enough to keep it going a good while longer. Tears well in her eyes, but she doesn’t let Piney see them. The snow, meanwhile, continues through the next day and into the evening. The women now realize the end is near. In the morning, they lack the strength to keep the fire going, and it slowly dies.
.......“Piney, can you pray?” the Duchess says.
.......The Duchess puts her head on Piney’s shoulder and they fall asleep. They sleep the rest of the day and into the next. Then voices and footsteps break the silence around the cabin and a hand brushes snow from the faces of the two women. The narrator says, “You could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other's arms.”
.......On a nearby pine tree is a knife stuck through the two of clubs. On the card is a message written in pencil:
BENEATH THIS TREE.......At his side is a Derringer, which had put a bullet through his heart. He had been “the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.”
LIES THE BODY
WHO STRUCK A STREAK OF BAD LUCK
ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER, 1850,
HANDED IN HIS CHECKS
ON THE 7TH DECEMBER, 1850.
There is goodness--and even heroism--in the heart of many of society's outcasts. John Oakhurst, the Duchess, Mother Shipton all behave selflessly when death creeps up on them. For example, they treat the two young people with utmost consideration and kindness. Oakhurst could have used his snowshoes to return to civilization; instead, he gave them to Tom Simson. Mother Shipton and the Duchess act as surrogate mothers to Piney Woods. Except for Uncle Billy, all the characters are tolerant of one another as they attempt to keep up their spirits under extremely difficult circumstances. Mother Shipton, the Duchess, and Piney Woods die nobly and courageously. Oakhurst chooses suicide, revealing that he "was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat," the narrator says.
The citizens of Poker Flat's secret committee appear upright and just, at least to themselves. However, in regard to John Oakhurst, they are hypocrites. After all, they sat down at the poker table with him, becoming gamblers themselves. But after losing money to him, they run him out of town. One citizen, John Wheeler, even suggests hanging him, then taking back their money.
Indifference of Nature
Nature shows no mercy to the outcasts. After Poker Flat rejects them, heavy snow isolates them. The sky clears, offering them hope, only to form new clouds that bring more snow. John Oakhurst may be a poker player par excellence, but he cannot defeat Mother Nature.
The climax of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” occurs when John Oakhurst fails to return to the cabin after seeing off Tom Simson on the latter's snowshoe trek back to Poker Flat. It is at this point that the Duchess and Piney accept the imminence of death.
Bret Harte is among the American writers associated with the local-color genre. Besides presenting narratives in a regional dialect, local-color writers, or "local colorists," attempted to portray life in the various sections of burgeoning America. Harte, for example, focused many of his stories on the gold-mining camps and towns. However, rather than writing soberly realistic stories, local colorists tended to write stories infused with "eccentrics as characters" and "whimsical plotting," according to William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, authors of A Handbook to Literature (266). Thrall and Hibbard also note that local colorists "emphasized verisimilitude of detail without being concerned often enough about truth to the larger aspects of life or human nature" (266).
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and similar stories of Harte were highly acclaimed and widely popular in the decade or so after Harte published them, earning him substantial money and a worldwide audience. Although this story and others of his remain popular today, critics now believe he was far overrated as a stylist because of his use of sentimentality and because of lack of originality in his themes and plots. However, there can be no gainsaying that he invented stock character types later imitated in western novels and films. These character types include the roving gambler, like John Oakhurst, and the tainted ladies with hearts of gold, like the Duchess and Mother Shipton. Overall, one may fairly say that Harte was an appealing and influential writer, but probably not great one.