“The Outcasts of
Poker Flat” –Brete Harte
As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of
Poker Flat on the morning of the 23d 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 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 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.
The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheatre,
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.
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 canon 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.
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 gayety
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 their 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 fun."
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 marvellously 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.
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 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 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.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.