The Outcasts Of Poker Flat

: Selected Stories

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

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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


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


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 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 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 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


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 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 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 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 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:










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.