The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of
Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he
was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the
preceding night.  Two or three men, conversing earnestly together,
ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances.  There
was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to
Sabbath influences, looked ominous.

Mr. Oakhurst’s calm, handsome face betrayed small concern in these
indications.  Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause
was another question.  “I reckon they’re after somebody,” he
reflected; “likely it’s me.”  He returned to his pocket the
handkerchief with which he had been whipping away the red dust of
Poker Flat from his neat boots, and quietly discharged his mind of
any further conjecture.

In point of fact, Poker Flat was “after somebody.”  It had lately
suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses,
and a prominent citizen.  It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous
reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that
had provoked it.  A secret committee had determined to rid the town
of all improper persons.  This was done permanently in regard of
two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the
gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other
objectionable characters.  I regret to say that some of these were
ladies.  It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their
impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily
established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in

Mr. Oakhurst was right in supposing that he was included in this
category.  A few of the committee had urged hanging him as a
possible example, and a sure method of reimbursing themselves from
his pockets of the sums he had won from them.  “It’s agin justice,”
said Jim Wheeler, “to let this yer young man from Roaring Camp–an
entire stranger–carry away our money.”  But a crude sentiment of
equity residing in the breasts of those who had been fortunate
enough to win from Mr. Oakhurst overruled this narrower local

Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none
the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges.
He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate.  With him life was
at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage
in favor of the dealer.

A body of armed men accompanied the deported wickedness of Poker
Flat to the outskirts of the settlement.  Besides Mr. Oakhurst, who
was known to be a coolly desperate man, and for whose intimidation
the armed escort was intended, the expatriated party consisted of a
young woman familiarly known as the “Duchess”; another, who had won
the title of “Mother Shipton”; and “Uncle Billy,” a suspected
sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard.  The cavalcade provoked no
comments from the spectators, nor was any word uttered by the
escort.  Only, when the gulch which marked the uttermost limit of
Poker Flat was reached, the leader spoke briefly and to the point.
The exiles were forbidden to return at the peril of their lives.

As the escort disappeared, their pent-up feelings found vent in a
few hysterical tears from the Duchess, some bad language from
Mother Shipton, and a Parthian volley of expletives from Uncle
Billy.  The philosophic Oakhurst alone remained silent.  He
listened calmly to Mother Shipton’s desire to cut somebody’s heart
out, to the repeated statements of the Duchess that she would die
in the road, and to the alarming oaths that seemed to be bumped out
of Uncle Billy as he rode forward.  With the easy good humor
characteristic of his class, he insisted upon exchanging his own
riding horse, “Five Spot,” for the sorry mule which the Duchess
rode.  But even this act did not draw the party into any closer
sympathy.  The young woman readjusted her somewhat draggled plumes
with a feeble, faded coquetry; Mother Shipton eyed the possessor of
“Five Spot” with malevolence, and Uncle Billy included the whole
party in one sweeping anathema.

The road to Sandy Bar–a camp that, not having as yet experienced
the regenerating influences of Poker Flat, consequently seemed to
offer some invitation to the emigrants–lay over a steep mountain
range.  It was distant a day’s severe travel.  In that advanced
season, the party soon passed out of the moist, temperate regions
of the foothills into the dry, cold, bracing air of the Sierras.
The trail was narrow and difficult.  At noon the Duchess, rolling
out of her saddle upon the ground, declared her intention of going
no farther, and the party halted.

The spot was singularly wild and impressive.  A wooded
amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of
naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice
that overlooked the valley.  It was, undoubtedly, the most suitable
spot for a camp, had camping been advisable.  But Mr. Oakhurst knew
that scarcely half the journey to Sandy Bar was accomplished, and
the party were not equipped or provisioned for delay.  This fact he
pointed out to his companions curtly, with a philosophic commentary
on the folly of “throwing up their hand before the game was played
out.”  But they were furnished with liquor, which in this emergency
stood them in place of food, fuel, rest, and prescience.  In spite
of his remonstrances, it was not long before they were more or less
under its influence.  Uncle Billy passed rapidly from a bellicose
state into one of stupor, the Duchess became maudlin, and Mother
Shipton snored.  Mr. Oakhurst alone remained erect, leaning against
a rock, calmly surveying them.

Mr. Oakhurst did not drink.  It interfered with a profession which
required coolness, impassiveness, and presence of mind, and, in his
own language, he “couldn’t afford it.”  As he gazed at his
recumbent fellow exiles, the loneliness begotten of his pariah
trade, his habits of life, his very vices, for the first time
seriously oppressed him.  He bestirred himself in dusting his black
clothes, washing his hands and face, and other acts characteristic
of his studiously neat habits, and for a moment forgot his
annoyance.  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, singularly enough, was
most conducive to that calm equanimity for which he was notorious.
He looked at the gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet sheer above
the circling pines around him; at the sky, ominously clouded; at
the valley below, already deepening into shadow.  And, doing so,
suddenly he heard his own name called.

A horseman slowly ascended the trail.  In the fresh, open face of
the newcomer Mr. Oakhurst recognized Tom Simson, otherwise known as
the “Innocent” of Sandy Bar.  He had met him some months before
over a “little game,” and had, with perfect equanimity, won the
entire fortune–amounting to some forty dollars–of that guileless
youth.  After the game was finished, Mr. Oakhurst drew the youthful
speculator behind the door and thus addressed him: “Tommy, you’re a
good little man, but you can’t gamble worth a cent.  Don’t try it
over again.”  He then handed him his money back, pushed him gently
from the room, and so made a devoted slave of Tom Simson.

There was a remembrance of this in his boyish and enthusiastic
greeting of Mr. Oakhurst.  He had started, he said, to go to Poker
Flat to seek his fortune.  “Alone?”  No, not exactly alone; in fact
(a giggle), he had run away with Piney Woods.  Didn’t Mr. Oakhurst
remember Piney?  She that used to wait on the table at the
Temperance House?  They had been engaged a long time, but old Jake
Woods had objected, and so they had run away, and were going to
Poker Flat to be married, and here they were.  And they were tired
out, and how lucky it was they had found a place to camp and
company.  All this the Innocent delivered rapidly, while Piney, a
stout, comely damsel of fifteen, emerged from behind the pine tree,
where she had been blushing unseen, and rode to the side of her

Mr. Oakhurst seldom troubled himself with sentiment, still less
with propriety; but he had a vague idea that the situation was not
fortunate.  He retained, however, his presence of mind sufficiently
to kick Uncle Billy, who was about to say something, and Uncle
Billy was sober enough to recognize in Mr. Oakhurst’s kick a
superior power that would not bear trifling.  He then endeavored to
dissuade Tom Simson from delaying further, but in vain.  He even
pointed out the fact that there was no provision, nor means of
making a camp.  But, unluckily, the Innocent met this objection by
assuring the party that he was provided with an extra mule loaded
with provisions and by the discovery of a rude attempt at a log
house near the trail.  “Piney can stay with Mrs. Oakhurst,” said
the Innocent, pointing to the Duchess, “and I can shift for

Nothing but Mr. Oakhurst’s admonishing foot saved Uncle Billy from
bursting into a roar of laughter.  As it was, he felt compelled to
retire up the canyon until he could recover his gravity.  There he
confided the joke to the tall pine trees, with many slaps of his
leg, contortions of his face, and the usual profanity.  But when he
returned to the party, he found them seated by a fire–for the air
had grown strangely chill and the sky overcast–in apparently
amicable conversation.  Piney was actually talking in an impulsive,
girlish fashion to the Duchess, who was listening with an interest
and animation she had not shown for many days.  The Innocent was
holding forth, apparently with equal effect, to Mr. Oakhurst and
Mother Shipton, who was actually relaxing into amiability.  “Is
this yer a damned picnic?” said Uncle Billy with inward scorn as he
surveyed the sylvan group, the glancing firelight, and the tethered
animals in the foreground.  Suddenly an idea mingled with the
alcoholic fumes that disturbed his brain.  It was apparently of a
jocular nature, for he felt impelled to slap his leg again and cram
his fist into his mouth.

As the shadows crept slowly up the mountain, a slight breeze rocked
the tops of the pine trees, and moaned through their long and
gloomy aisles.  The ruined cabin, patched and covered with pine
boughs, was set apart for the ladies.  As the lovers parted, they
unaffectedly exchanged a kiss, so honest and sincere that it might
have been heard above the swaying pines.  The frail Duchess and the
malevolent Mother Shipton were probably too stunned to remark upon
this last evidence of simplicity, and so turned without a word to
the hut.  The fire was replenished, the men lay down before the
door, and in a few minutes were asleep.

Mr. Oakhurst was a light sleeper.  Toward morning he awoke benumbed
and cold.  As he stirred the dying fire, the wind, which was now
blowing strongly, brought to his cheek that which caused the blood
to leave it–snow!

He started to his feet with the intention of awakening the
sleepers, for there was no time to lose.  But turning to where
Uncle Billy had been lying, he found him gone.  A suspicion leaped
to his brain and a curse to his lips.  He ran to the spot where the
mules had been tethered; they were no longer there.  The tracks
were already rapidly disappearing in the snow.

The momentary excitement brought Mr. Oakhurst back to the fire with
his usual calm.  He did not waken the sleepers.  The Innocent
slumbered peacefully, with a smile on his good-humored, freckled
face; the virgin Piney slept beside her frailer sisters as sweetly
as though attended by celestial guardians; and Mr. Oakhurst,
drawing his blanket over his shoulders, stroked his mustaches and
waited for the dawn.  It came slowly in a whirling mist of
snowflakes that dazzled and confused the eye.  What could be seen
of the landscape appeared magically changed.  He looked over the
valley, and summed up the present and future in two words–“snowed

A careful inventory of the provisions, which, fortunately for the
party, had been stored within the hut and so escaped the felonious
fingers of Uncle Billy, disclosed the fact that with care and
prudence they might last ten days longer.  “That is,” said Mr.
Oakhurst, sotto voce to the Innocent, “if you’re willing to board
us.  If you ain’t–and perhaps you’d better not–you can wait till
Uncle Billy gets back with provisions.”  For some occult reason,
Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s
rascality, and so offered the hypothesis that he had wandered from
the camp and had accidentally stampeded the animals.  He dropped a
warning to the Duchess and Mother Shipton, who of course knew the
facts of their associate’s defection.  “They’ll find out the truth
about us all when they find out anything,” he added, significantly,
“and there’s no good frightening them now.”

Tom Simson not only put all his worldly store at the disposal of
Mr. Oakhurst, but seemed to enjoy the prospect of their enforced
seclusion.  “We’ll have a good camp for a week, and then the
snow’ll melt, and we’ll all go back together.”  The cheerful gaiety
of the young man, and Mr. Oakhurst’s calm, infected the others.
The Innocent with the aid of pine boughs extemporized a thatch for
the roofless cabin, and the Duchess directed Piney in the
rearrangement of the interior with a taste and tact that opened the
blue eyes of that provincial maiden to their fullest extent.  “I
reckon now you’re used to fine things at Poker Flat,” said Piney.
The Duchess turned away sharply to conceal something that reddened
her cheeks through its professional tint, and Mother Shipton
requested Piney not to “chatter.”  But when Mr. Oakhurst returned
from a weary search for the trail, he heard the sound of happy
laughter echoed from the rocks.  He stopped in some alarm, and his
thoughts first naturally reverted to the whisky, which he had
prudently cached.  “And yet it don’t somehow sound like whisky,”
said the gambler.  It was not until he caught sight of the blazing
fire through the still-blinding storm and the group around it that
he settled to the conviction that it was “square fun.”

Whether Mr. Oakhurst had cached his cards with the whisky as
something debarred the free access of the community, I cannot say.
It was certain that, in Mother Shipton’s words, he “didn’t say
cards once” during that evening.  Haply the time was beguiled by an
accordion, produced somewhat ostentatiously by Tom Simson from his
pack.  Notwithstanding some difficulties attending the manipulation
of this instrument, Piney Woods managed to pluck several reluctant
melodies from its keys, to an accompaniment by the Innocent on a
pair of bone castanets.  But the crowning festivity of the evening
was reached in a rude camp-meeting hymn, which the lovers, joining
hands, sang with great earnestness and vociferation.  I fear that a
certain defiant tone and Covenanter’s swing to its chorus, rather
than any devotional quality, caused it speedily to infect the
others, who at last joined in the refrain:

     “I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord,
      And I’m bound to die in His army.”

The pines rocked, the storm eddied and whirled above the miserable
group, and the flames of their altar leaped heavenward as if in
token of the vow.

At midnight the storm abated, the rolling clouds parted, and the
stars glittered keenly above the sleeping camp.  Mr. Oakhurst,
whose professional habits had enabled him to live on the smallest
possible amount of sleep, in dividing the watch with Tom Simson
somehow managed to take upon himself the greater part of that duty.
He excused himself to the Innocent by saying that he had “often
been a week without sleep.”  “Doing what?” asked Tom.  “Poker!”
replied Oakhurst, sententiously; “when a man gets a streak of
luck,–nigger luck–he don’t get tired.  The luck gives in first.
Luck,” continued the gambler, reflectively, “is a mighty queer
thing.  All you know about it for certain is that it’s bound to
change.  And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes
you.  We’ve had a streak of bad luck since we left Poker Flat–you
come along, and slap you get into it, too.  If you can hold your
cards right along you’re all right.  For,” added the gambler, with
cheerful irrelevance,

     “‘I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord,
       And I’m bound to die in His army.'”

The third day came, and the sun, looking through the white-
curtained valley, saw the outcasts divide their slowly decreasing
store of provisions for the morning meal.  It was one of the
peculiarities of that mountain climate that its rays diffused a
kindly warmth over the wintry landscape, as if in regretful
commiseration of the past.  But it revealed drift on drift of snow
piled high around the hut–a hopeless, uncharted, trackless sea of
white lying below the rocky shores to which the castaways still
clung.  Through the marvelously clear air the smoke of the pastoral
village of Poker Flat rose miles away.  Mother Shipton saw it, and
from a remote pinnacle of her rocky fastness hurled in that
direction a final malediction.  It was her last vituperative
attempt, and perhaps for that reason was invested with a certain
degree of sublimity.  It did her good, she privately informed the
Duchess.  “Just you go out there and cuss, and see.”  She then set
herself to the task of amusing “the child,” as she and the Duchess
were pleased to call Piney.  Piney was no chicken, but it was a
soothing and original theory of the pair thus to account for the
fact that she didn’t swear and wasn’t improper.

When night crept up again through the gorges, the reedy notes of
the accordion rose and fell in fitful spasms and long-drawn gasps
by the flickering campfire.  But music failed to fill entirely the
aching void left by insufficient food, and a new diversion was
proposed by Piney–storytelling.  Neither Mr. Oakhurst nor his
female companions caring to relate their personal experiences, this
plan would have failed too but for the Innocent.  Some months
before he had chanced upon a stray copy of Mr. Pope’s ingenious
translation of the ILIAD.  He now proposed to narrate the principal
incidents of that poem–having thoroughly mastered the argument and
fairly forgotten the words–in the current vernacular of Sandy Bar.
And so for the rest of that night the Homeric demigods again walked
the earth.  Trojan bully and wily Greek wrestled in the winds, and
the great pines in the canyon seemed to bow to the wrath of the son
of Peleus.  Mr. Oakhurst listened with quiet satisfaction.  Most
especially was he interested in the fate of “Ash-heels,” as the
Innocent persisted in denominating the “swift-footed Achilles.”

So with small food and much of Homer and the accordion, a week
passed over the heads of the outcasts.  The sun again forsook them,
and again from leaden skies the snowflakes were sifted over the
land.  Day by day closer around them drew the snowy circle, until
at last they looked from their prison over drifted walls of
dazzling white that towered twenty feet above their heads.  It
became more and more difficult to replenish their fires, even from
the fallen trees beside them, now half-hidden in the drifts.  And
yet no one complained.  The lovers turned from the dreary prospect
and looked into each other’s eyes, and were happy.  Mr. Oakhurst
settled himself coolly to the losing game before him.  The Duchess,
more cheerful than she had been, assumed the care of Piney.  Only
Mother Shipton–once the strongest of the party–seemed to sicken
and fade.  At midnight on the tenth day she called Oakhurst to her
side.  “I’m going,” she said, in a voice of querulous weakness,
“but don’t say anything about it.  Don’t waken the kids.  Take the
bundle from under my head and open it.”  Mr. Oakhurst did so.  It
contained Mother Shipton’s rations for the last week, untouched.
“Give ’em to the child,” she said, pointing to the sleeping Piney.
“You’ve starved yourself,” said the gambler.  “That’s what they
call it,” said the woman, querulously, as she lay down again and,
turning her face to the wall, passed quietly away.

The accordion and the bones were put aside that day, and Homer was
forgotten.  When the body of Mother Shipton had been committed to
the snow, Mr. Oakhurst took the Innocent aside, and showed him a
pair of snowshoes, which he had fashioned from the old pack saddle.
“There’s one chance in a hundred to save her yet,” he said,
pointing to Piney; “but it’s there,” he added, pointing toward
Poker Flat.  “If you can reach there in two days she’s safe.”  “And
you?” asked Tom Simson.  “I’ll stay here,” was the curt reply.

The lovers parted with a long embrace.  “You are not going, too?”
said the Duchess as she saw Mr. Oakhurst apparently waiting to
accompany him.  “As far as the canyon,” he replied.  He turned
suddenly, and kissed the Duchess, leaving her pallid face aflame
and her trembling limbs rigid with amazement.

Night came, but not Mr. Oakhurst.  It brought the storm again and
the whirling snow.  Then the Duchess, feeding the fire, found that
someone had quietly piled beside the hut enough fuel to last a few
days longer.  The tears rose to her eyes, but she hid them from

The women slept but little.  In the morning, looking into each
other’s faces, they read their fate.  Neither spoke; but Piney,
accepting the position of the stronger, drew near and placed her
arm around the Duchess’s waist.  They kept this attitude for the
rest of the day.  That night the storm reached its greatest fury,
and, rending asunder the protecting pines, invaded the very hut.

Toward morning they found themselves unable to feed the fire, which
gradually died away.  As the embers slowly blackened, the Duchess
crept closer to Piney, and broke the silence of many hours: “Piney,
can you pray?”  “No, dear,” said Piney, simply.  The Duchess,
without knowing exactly why, felt relieved, and, putting her head
upon Piney’s shoulder, spoke no more.  And so reclining, the
younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her
virgin breast, they fell asleep.

The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them.  Feathery drifts of
snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged
birds, and settled about them as they slept.  The moon through the
rifted clouds looked down upon what had been the camp.  But all
human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the
spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.

They 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

But at the head of the gulch, on one of the largest pine trees,
they found the deuce of clubs pinned to the bark with a bowie
knife.  It bore the following, written in pencil, in a firm hand:

          LIES THE BODY
          JOHN OAKHURST,
     ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER, 1850,
     ON THE 7TH DECEMBER, 1850.

And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet
in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he
who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts
of Poker Flat.

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