Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Date
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.
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
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.
The Duchess and Mother
Shipton: Prostitutes who are also banished from Poker Flat.
Uncle Billy: Thief
and drunkard who is likewise forced out of town.
Tom Simson: Young
man who leaves town and joins Oakhurst and the other outcasts. He admires
Oakhurst, who returned $40 he had won from Billy after feeling sorry for
Piney Woods: Tom's
sweetheart, who leaves town with him. They had planned to marry in Poker
Jim Wheeler: Resident
of Poker Flat who bemoans the loss of money to Oakhurst.
Jake Woods: Piney's
father. He is referred to in the story but plays no active role in it.
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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.
agin justice," said Jim Wheeler, "to let this yer young man from Roaring
Camp–an entire stranger–carry away our money."
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
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.
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.
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.
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 abandoned log
house nearby. It is a roofless ruin, but it does have walls.
can stay with Mrs. Oakhurst,” the youth says. He thinks the Duchess is
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.
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.
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.
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 . . ."
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.
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,
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
can you pray?” the Duchess says.
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.”
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
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
ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER,
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
as a Local Colorist
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).
Thrall, William Flint and Addison
Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature. Revised and enlarged by C. Hugh
Holman. New York: The .......Odyssey Press,
"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.
Questions and Essay Topics
Who is the most admirable character
in the story?
Write an essay explaining the
importance Tom Simson and Piney Woods as catalysts who bring out the best
in John Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, and the Duchess.
Read the story carefully. Then
identify the passage suggesting that Uncle Billy is plotting against his
fellow outcasts. Would you describe him as malicious or mischievous?
Apparently, Tom Simson makes
it back to Poker Flat and summons help. Do you believe the citizens of
Poker Flat look less harshly on the outcasts after hearing their story
from Tom and finding the bodies, along with Oakhurst's epitaph?
Why did John Oakhurst choose
the two of clubs to bear his epitaph?
If you had to affix blame for
the deaths of the stranded outcasts, would you point your finger at Uncle
Billy, the committee of Poker Flat citizens, bad luck, or the outcasts
What was life like in frontier
towns in California during the days of the gold rush in the mid-19th Century?
Were the towns populated with characters like those in Bret Harte's fictional
Write an essay explaining to
what extent Bret Harte based his fictional tales on his own experiences