- The Outcasts of Poker Flat
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (1869) is a short story written by renowned author of the American West Bret Harte. This story is a good example of regionalism and local color during the Gilded Generation. His compelling combination of realism and sentimentality offers readers real and known characters, yet without the dullness that might sometimes accompany them. Charles A. Fleming, a well-read critic had this to say about Harte's work: "As a writer, Harte was a talented humorist who could take fairly routine story formulas and give them new vigor and settings. His background as a journalist gave him a brisk style and a special skill for describing people, their mannerisms, and dialogue." Harte, although he was born in Albany, New York, wrote passionately and in graphic detail about the American West. While he was a contemporary of Mark Twain, he was often overlooked because of this. His short story, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" was first published in January 1869 in the magazine Overland Monthly, and was one of two short stories which brought him national attention.
The story takes place in a California community known as Poker Flat, near the town of La Porte. The year is 1850 and Poker Flat is in a downward spiral. The town has lost thousands of dollars and the virtues of the area seem to be going as well. In an effort to save what is left of the town and reestablish it as a virtuous place to be, a secret committee is created and it is decided whom ought to be exiled and whom ought to be killed altogether. On November 23, 1850 our story begins as four "immoral" characters are exiled from Poker Flat. The reader begins the tale following the first of these "immoral" people, a professional gambler by the name of John Oakhurst. (It is a likely assertion that he is among those sent away because of his great success in winning much money from those on the secret committee themselves.) On his way out of town he is joined with "The Duchess" (a saloon girl), "Mother Shipton" (a brothel owner), and Uncle Billy, (the town drunkard and suspected robber). They set out for a less-respectable camp a hard day's journey away over a mountain range, but despite Oakhurst's protests, the rest of the party decides to stop for a rest at noon, only halfway to their goal.
While stopped on their rest, the group is meet with a pair of runaway lovers on their way to Poker Flat to get married. Piney Woods is a fifteen-year-old girl and her lover, Tom Simson (also known as "The Innocent"), is a younger man who has met Oakhurst before. Tom has great admiration for Oakhurst because on the occasion which they met before, Oakhurst had won a load of money from Tom. Being a gentleman however, Oakhurst returned the money and pressed upon Tom that he should never play poker again, as he really was a quite terrible player. Tom then is thrilled about coming upon Oakhurst on this day, and decides that he and Piney will stop and stay with the group of travelers for a time. They are unaware however that the group has been exiled and being 'innocent' and 'pure' as they are, think The Duchess is an actual duchess and the such. After the decision is made to stay the night together, Tom leads the group to a half-butty cabin he discovered and they spend the night there. In the midst of the night, Oakhurst awakens to find a heavy snow storm raging, and looks about, being the only one up. He soon discovers however that somebody had been up before him--Uncle Billy had awaken, stolen their mules and horses, and ditched the party. The group is now forced to wait out the storm with few provisions that would only last them another ten days at best.
After a week in the cabin, Mother Shipton dies, having secretly and altruistically starving herself so that she might save her share of the food for Piney. Oakhurst then advises Simson that he will have to go for help and fashions some snowshoes for the man. The gambler tells the others he will accompany the lad part of the way.
The "law of Poker Flat" finally arrives at the cabin, only to find the Dutchess and Piney dead, embracing in a peaceful repose. They both seemed so peaceful and innocent that one could not tell which was the virgin and which the lady of the evening. This is an important part of the story, and reminds us that death is really the great equalizer. We next learn that Oakhurst is found dead beneath a tree, with a Deringer pistol lying at his side and a bullet in his heart, having committed suicide. There is a 2 of clubs above his head with a note that reads:
BENEATH THIS TREE LIES THE BODY OF JOHN OAKHURST, WHO STRUCK A STREAK OF BAD LUCK ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER, 1850, AND HANDED IN HIS CHECKS ON THE 7TH DECEMBER, 1850.
It is significant to note that the text reads that what was written on the tree was "written in pencil, in a firm hand". The fact that Oakhurst wrote in a "firm hand" means that he did not kill himself because he was weak, or tired, or hungry. There was something symbolic and morally meaningful in his death, and we must then investigate the question of what that was. Tom Simson's fate is not stated and he is never in fact mentioned after leaving the cabin, but he is presumably the one who tells the "law of Poker Flat" where to find the cabin where Piney and the Dutchess were stranded.
John Oakhurst: One of the heroes of the story, Oakhurst has a kindly nature by heart. He is chivalrous, insisting upon switching his good riding horse for the mule of the Dutchess, and refusing to speak vulgarities. You can also see his good nature when we hear of his gambling winnings against the Innocent, and how he took that Tom Simson and said to him, "'Tommy, you're a good little man, but you can't gamble worth a cent. Don't try it ever again.' He then handed him back his money back, [and] pushed him gently from the room". Oakhurst was not a drinker and would not partake of alcohol. He is cool tempered and even keeled, and had a very calmed manner about himself. He believed in luck and fate, and his suicide spurs the question of whether he was simply giving into his bad luck, or rather perhaps he decided he was no longer going to live by luck and quite literally took his life into his own hands.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
It has been filmed at least five times: one in 1937 with Preston Foster and another in 1957 with Dale Robertson. The spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse is based on this story and another of Harte's stories, The Luck of Roaring Camp.
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