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 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.

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 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 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 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:

Beneath This Tree
Lies The Body Of
JOHN OAKHURST,
Who Struck A Streak Of Bad Luck
On The 23rd 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.

Footnotes

  1. The “white-winged birds” here are doves, typically associated with innocence, unity, and purity. The color white is often associated with similar characteristics, and these two women surrounded by snow contributes to a tone of “peace.” Piney Woods and the Duchess look so peaceful and innocent lying close together in the snow that the townspeople “could scarcely tell” them apart. This final peaceful image of the death supports the notion that our morality is not easily measured by our life choices. Piney Woods and the Duchess are both good people, and their position in death reminds both the townspeople and the reader of this.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Mother Shipton’s act of selflessness contributes to the theme that the boundary between “moral” and “immoral” is not black and white, nor very easily defined. In the beginning of the story, Mother Shipton is described from the eyes of the townspeople: she is a prostitute that they look down on—worthy only of being cast out. Mother Shipton has her guard up once she is exiled, but gradually she begins to let it down, eventually placing the needs of others above her own. Harte paints the “moral” and the “immoral” as a kind of spectrum and all the characters fall at different places on that spectrum throughout the story.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Homer is known for using epithets (a phrase used to describe or identify a person or thing) to characterize his gods and demigods. Throughout the Iliad, Achilles is referred to as “swift-footed” due to his superior speed and evasiveness that allow him to be a great warrior. While it is tempting to think that Achilles is only “swift-footed” while avoiding danger, the epithet “swift-footed Achilles” acts more like a permanent name. Achilles is always “swift-footed,” even while standing still because it is an innate character trait.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. In Greek mythology, Peleus is the king of the Myrmidons (the people of Thessaly). He married a nymph named Thetis who gave birth to the “son of Peleus,” better known as Achilles. Achilles is one of the main characters of Homer’s Iliad.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. A “demigod” in Greek mythology is a person who has only some of the powers of a god (typically because this person is both part human and part god.) “Homeric demigods” were the ancient Greek demigods that Homer featured in his epics, the most notable of which are Achilles, Helen of Troy, and Aeneas.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. One of the goals of the literary genre regional-realism is to realistically depict the particular vernacular of a certain region. Mr. Oakhurst narrates Homer’s Iliad for the group, but he does so in his own vernacular and also based on Alexander Pope’s 18th-century translation. Despite these many translations, Mr. Oakhurst’s narration is still successful for his companions and “Homeric demigods again walked the earth.” Hart illustrates that the story is no lesser for being translated and morphed into local cultural dialects. The meaning still prevails and the outcasts are able to immerse themselves in ancient Greek mythology to pass their time.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The Iliad is an epic poem from ancient Greece about the Trojan War, generally believed to have been written around 750 to 800 BCE by the Greek poet Homer. There has been some debate concerning whom to credit for writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, as Homer’s very existence as a person has been questioned. Regardless, the poems are still widely considered read and part of the Western literary canon.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. “Mr. Pope” refers to the 18th-century English poet, translator, and satirist, Alexander Pope. Pope was a prolific writer most known for his poems but also very well-known for his verse translations. He published his translated versions of Homer’s Iliad in 1720 and The Odyssey, with the help of British poet William Broome in 1726.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. If one is speaking “sententiously” they are expressing themselves in a feigned, energetic manner using aphorisms. Its negative connotation suggests that the speaker is being pompous and preachy. Mr. Oakhurst uses a poker metaphor to understand and explain the concept of luck because poker helps him make sense of a complex world. His words are “sententious” because he tersely assumes a moralistic authority on the matter—he feels that he knows best out of all his cohorts about fate, luck, and human behavior because he has a metaphor to explain these things.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The Covenanters were a group of Scottish Presbyterians who signed what is referred to as the “National Covenant” in 1638. The goal of this covenant was to support religious freedom and autonomy for the Church of Scotland, which they thought to be threatened by King Charles I and the rest of the Stuart royal house. Some of the Covenanters immigrated to North America where they became known as “reformed Presbyterians” who were passionate and outspoken about their cause. The “Covenanter’s swing” that the narrator mentions here is alluding to these characteristics. The outcasts are inspired to sing the hymns not because of any religious beliefs, but because of the spirited nature of the performance.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The narrator states that the Duchess and Mother Shipton are aware of “Uncle Billy’s rascality” in a way that Tom Simson and Piney Woods are not. Mr. Oakhurst has kept the truth from Tom and Piney due to “some occult,” or mysterious, reason. However, as Mr. Oakhurst seems to be notorious for attempting to preserve innocence (recall his protectiveness of Tom Simson when he lost his gambling match), we might view Mr. Oakhurst’s omission as another one of these attempts. Mr. Oakhurst seems to be trying to shield Tom Simson from the dishonorable Uncle Billy.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. “Sotto voce” is an Italian phrase that means to speak in a lowered voice. While someone might utter something in sotto voce so that others will not overhear, it is also often used as a rhetorical strategy for dramatic effect. In this case, Mr. Oakhurst may be lowering his voice for either reason, though we are not given many clues that suggest his desire to add dramatic effect.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The adjective “sylvan” means being surrounded by woods or inhabiting a wooded area. The word often has a positive connotation, indicating that there is a pleasantness to the sight of the “sylvan group,” especially in combination with the “glancing firelight” and “tethered animals.” The description here pulls the reader into a warm and comforting moment of relaxation along with the characters.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The group that was so divided before is now more “amicable” and “relaxed” with the addition of Tom Simson and Piney Woods. This introduces an important theme for the story: strangers with drastically differing realities can come together and discover similarities. The “moral” and the “immoral” people are not all that different after all. Thus, while Piney and Tom are conventionally deemed “acceptable” townspeople, there is good in many of the other characters, which we are just starting to see.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The term “temperance” means abstinence from drinking alcohol. A “temperance house,” also known as a “temperance tavern,” was a type of bar that did not serve alcohol or asked customers to sign an oath stating that they would drink in moderation or abstain completely while inside. Piney Woods used to work in a temperance house—an occupation traditionally held in higher “moral” esteem than some of the occupations of her present company.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. Piney Woods is another conventionally “innocent” or “good” character and is referred to by her real name rather than a nickname. Because we are given Piney’s real name before we learn much about her, we are led to assume that she might be different from the group of exiles.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The mention of gambling here draws an immediate comparison to Tom Simson and Mr. Oakhurst. However, note that Tom Simson is depicted as someone who could not even gamble if he wanted to. Though this lack of experience in gambling might make Tom seem even more “innocent” or “moral” than Mr. Oakhurst, the narrator reminds us of Mr. Oakhurst’s benevolence when Mr. Oakhurst gives Tom Simson all the money that he lost. Tom Simson is innocent, but Mr. Oakhurst does not take advantage of this. Comparing these two characters reinforces Mr. Oakhurst’s ethical nature.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. Tom Simson is referred to by his nickname, the “Innocent,” like all of the “expatriates” except Mr. Oakhurst. However, we are still given his birth name. Furthermore, while the nicknames of the “outcasts” have either neutral or negative connotations, Tom Simson’s nickname is generally considered positive and reminds us that he is not a part of the banished group.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. Mr. Oakhurst sets himself apart from his “companions” in many ways. They are “loud,” “weak,” “pitiable,” and drinking liquor when they should be making better use of their time and rations. Mr. Oakhurst is “calm,” strong, sober and resolute. This contrast portrays Mr. Oakhurst as a kind of exception to the rule. While he was exiled, he is still portrayed as more virtuous and ethical than his companions.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. An “anathema” is a person or thing that is hated or loathed. While the narrator states that Uncle Billy was the one that “included the whole party in one sweeping anathema,” Mother Shipton also eyes Mr. Oakhurst with “malevolence.” Note that Mr. Oakhurst’s kind actions failed to “draw the party into any closer sympathy.” This group of individuals are very divided, either hateful or fearful of one another despite being victims of the same unfortunate circumstance.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. “Parthian volley” refers to an ancient region called Parthia in modern-day northeast Iran. They developed a military strategy known as the “Parthian Shot,” in which an archer on horseback shoots arrows towards their enemies while retreating away from them. The expression a “Parthian volley” used here implies that Uncle Billy is cursing and threatening while in retreat. He is shooting “expletives” in vain, recognizing that he cannot change the committee’s decision.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  22. In this context, a “sluice” is a slanted channel used to filter gold out from dirt or sand. Customarily, people would claim a certain area during their search for gold and leave their gold in the sluice for short intervals of time if needed. A “sluice-robber” is someone who would then go around stealing the gold from unattended sluices.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  23. Note that the real names of these “expatriated” characters have been withheld and that they are instead referred to by the titles they are most well-known by in town. We see these characters through the eyes of the townspeople, a rhetorical strategy that suggests that these character’s reputations define their identities to a certain extent. Note that Mr. Oakhurst is referred to by his real name, setting him apart from the others who have been banished.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  24. While “expatriate” is most-often used today to describe a person who chooses to reside in a country other than that of their citizenship, to have been “expatriated” in this context means that one has been exiled or banished from the town of which one was residing.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  25. Mr. Oakhurst is characterized as “calm,” “quiet,” and “philosophic” many times throughout the story. He accepts his “sentence” in this calm manner, defying our expectations of what an “improper” person might behave like in this circumstance. Consider his reaction in relation to other characters, as it continues to define his character throughout the remainder of the story and establishes him as a heroic figure.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  26. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” has been associated with “regional-realism,” a literary movement popular in American literature during the time of the story’s publication. Regional-realism concerns itself with the local cultural and social customs of a particular area: in this case, the California Gold Rush region. What Harte highlights about the “Wild West” is the prejudice that the “locals” have towards “outsiders,” referring to them as strangers. The townspeople use Mr. Oakhurst status as an immigrant from another town as another means to justify his exile.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  27. “Roaring Camp” became a settlement in Felton, California, in the 1830s. In 1875, a railroad was opened in Roaring Camp, and today the town is commonly referred to as “Roaring Camp Railroads.” It has become a popular tourist destination in California due to its association with the California Gold Rush.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  28. While Mr. Oakhurst was a gambler, he suggests that it is not the reason that the townspeople wanted to exile him. Instead, he says that they probably wanted him out of town to get revenge for his winning their money during a game. This introduces the theme of the hypocrisy of those in power. The members of the committee hold themselves up to be the highest authority of morality in the town, ultimately deciding who is allowed to stay or go, but their decisions are motivated by biases and vindictiveness. Readers are encouraged to question who the real “moral” people are—if any.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  29. “Impropriety” in this context means “indecency” or “a failure to show modesty.” We can infer that this statement suggests that these women were prostitutes. The narrator calls attention to the fact that the town committee uses this as vindication for their “banishment” from the town.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  30. The word “improper” is used here to describe those that the “secret committee” deem “immoral” in some way. Note that the term “improper” does not necessarily describe someone who has committed crimes or offenses—but rather, someone that is “unfit” for this town. Thus, it is a value-judgement and not based upon law. The “change in moral atmosphere” has provoked this committee to exile citizens, but we are led to question how they decide and whether or not they should have the authority to do so.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  31. The town had experienced several significant “losses” of varying kinds. In the eyes of the townspeople, someone needs to be held accountable for these losses. However, there is not simply one person whom the town can blame for its recent misfortune. The narrator poses a question here that will be used to explore one of the texts themes: why do we seek a scapegoat, regardless of the circumstances, even when there is no one obviously at fault?

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  32. “Sabbath,” in this context, is used to refer to “Sunday,” which Christians observe as a holy day for attending church. A “Sabbath lull” then, describes the quiet that pervades a town on a Sunday whilst everyone is at church. Notice that the narrator tells us that Poker Flat is actually “a settlement unused to Sabbath influences,” implying that it is normally a lively town and that many of its inhabitants did not used to attend church on Sundays.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  33. There are two towns that are known as “Poker Flat” in California: one that is located in Calaveras County and one that is located in the Sierra County near in the Sierra Nevada. While there has been minor dispute over which Poker Flat Harte’s story is set in, it likely depicts the latter town in Sierra County because Harte’s characters are forced to traverse part of the Sierra mountain range.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  34. their impropriety was professional – The women were prostitutes, and their behavior was suitable and businesslike; therefore, the town felt justified in exiling them.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  35. Parthian volley of expletives – an allusion to the ancient country of Parthia, near Iran, which was known for archers who pretended to retreat while continuing to shoot; Uncle Billy's curses are designed to insult Poker Flat, but he must leave, regardless.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  36. malevolence – ill-will; a desire for bad things to happen to others

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  37. “throwing up their hand before the game was played out” – Oakhurst makes a reference to poker; it involves a person quitting or throwing in cards before the game was finished.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  38. Temperance House – a place that would refrain from serving liquor

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  39. professional tint – rouge; woman in the 1850s did not generally wear make up, and color showing through the Duchess' rouge would indicate that she is blushing.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  40. camp-meeting hymn – a camp meeting was a popular time for religious revivals in the 1800s

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  41. Covenanter's – an allusion to Scottish Protestants of the 1600s

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  42. sententiously – like a proverb or a truth that is simply stated

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  43. Mr. Pope's – a reference to Alexander Pope (1680 – 1744), a British writer who translated the Iliad into English poetry

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  44. Iliad – the epic work of the siege of Troy by the Greek poet Homer

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  45. Homeric demigods – the mythological gods that Homer wrote about

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  46. Trojan bully and wily Greek – another reference to Homer's writing; Trojans were citizens of Troy, but the Greeks, who tricked their enemies with the famous Trojan horse, were crafty and sly.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  47. swift-footed Achilles – the only vulnerable part of Achilles was the heel of his foot

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  48. Homer – the Greek poet of the eighth century who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  49. like white-winged birds – referring to doves, which are symbols of purity, virtue, and peace

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  50. “beneath the snow. . .outcasts of Poker Flat.” – Note how the perception of Oakhurst's character has changed because of his suicide.

    — Owl Eyes Reader