July 26, 2021

#08-113: The Outcasts of Poker Flat

black-and-white photo of a man leaning into a wooden trough that carries water through rocky terrain
Forty-niner at a sluice

Note: A group of ne'er-do-wells is exiled from a California mining camp--and proves they're better than most of the townsfolk!

Get Ready: What makes a person good or bad? Do you think we can ever properly judge the moral worth of others?

Few people today remember California author Bret Harte, a sort of "lesser Mark Twain" who wrote at the same time as Twain (they were born just a year apart), and covered some of the same subjects, including the mining camps of the California Gold Rush.

One of Harte's most famous stories is "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," which, with "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (written a year earlier) brought him national fame.

When the story begins, the mining community of Poker Flat is in financial and moral decline. A "secret society" forms to try to reverse the town's fortunes by exiling or hanging "undesirables."

Four such "immoral" residents are banished: a gambler named John Oakhurst (whose exile may be based more on the money he has won from "society" members than on any actual wrong-doing); Uncle Billy, the town drunk, suspected of being a sluice-robber; and two women, one younger and one older, nicknamed respectively "the Duchess" and "Mother Shipton." Their "sin" is never made clear, but it can be surmised.

The group sets its sights on another mining camp one day's journey away. As they travel, they stop for a rest, where a pair of lovers--fifteen-year-old Piney Woods and her beau, Tom Simson--meets up with them. Simson knows and admires Oakhurst, to whom he had previously lost money--which Oakhurst had returned, urging him to stop gambling because he was so terrible at it.

The group of six decides to spend the night together in a half-built cabin. When a blizzard rages during the night, Oakhurst discovers that Uncle Billy has left with the group's horses and mules. Stranded, with limited supplies, the group is in dire straits.

Mother Shipton dies of starvation after a week, having saved all of her rations for Piney. Oakhurst fashions snowshoes and sends Simson off for help, saying he will go with him just part way, but doesn't return. When a rescue party arrives, they discover the Duchess and Piney dead in a frozen embrace, and can't tell which one was the "outcast": they both look innocent in death.

Oakhurst, meanwhile, has committed suicide--but we're not told why. Was it weakness, or a noble attempt to leave more supplies for the others? The note he leaves doesn't say, just that he had "struck a streak of bad luck" and "cashed in his checks."

The story raises the question: where is the line that separates the "moral" behavior of the townspeople from the "immoral" behavior of the outcasts?


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Outcasts_of_Poker_Flat

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. banished
  2. blizzard
  3. embrace
  4. exile
  5. immoral
  6. rations
  7. sluice
  8. snowshoes
  9. surmised
  10. undesirables

  1. expulsion; separation
  2. carefully measured food supplies
  3. a strong snowstorm
  4. a device for removing gold from a river
  5. people not wanted
  6. a hug
  7. guessed
  8. behaving against society's rules
  9. devices for walking on top of packed snow
  10. sent away

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for July 26, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. j; 2. c; 3. f; 4. a; 5. h; 6. b; 7. d; 8. i; 9. g; 10. e