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
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 judgment.
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 prejudice.
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 party 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 bore 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
The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A
wooded amphitheatre, surrounded on three sides
by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped
gently towards 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
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
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 lover.
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 myself."
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 d----d 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 in!"
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 whiskey, which he had prudently cached.
"And yet it don't somehow sound like whiskey,"
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
Whether Mr. Oakhurst had cached his cards with
the whiskey 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
"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
"'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--story-telling. 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
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 snow-shoes, 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 some one 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 Piney.
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
vines, 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 arms.
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:--
BENEATH THIS TREE
LIES THE BODY
WHO STRUCK A STREAK OF BAD LUCK
ON THE 23RD OF NOVEMBER, 1850,
HANDED IN HIS CHECKS
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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~