Brett Harte’s short story, “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” begins thus:
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.
Everything in this paragraph works. The scene itself is pedestrian, a man steps into the street. Mr. Oakhurst is identified as “gambler” — which explains his character throughout the remainder of the story. The city is named “Poker Flats” which sounds appropriate for a gambler, until it is no longer.
The last sentence works perfectly. First, there is a “Sabbath lull”. Now such a thing during the 19th century would be unextraordinary: indeed, the sentence works precisely because a “Sabbath lull” would be immediately understood and even expected.
Harte then draws out the proposition with a stammering series of causes,
“which” — a relative pronoun whose compliment must now wait
“in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences”: Note first the accumulation of “s’s” in the sentence, which all start to pile up here. The rhythm of the phrase slows the reader down: there is no lilting way through the words. The phrase also ends in a series of unaccented syllables followed by a pause. The effect is to increase the importance of the next word
“looked”. The word “looked” immediately puts us into Oakhurst’s point of view: He is the one who stepped into the street. It was his point of view that the other men stopped talking. Now it is Oakhurst’s opinion that the situation looks, “ominous”. It is a good trick to write in a third person POV and yet slide into the position of a single character.
“ominous” is a great word here: First, it is accented on the first syllable created a stomp at the end of the sentence, “looked ominous” three accents in four syllables. Moreover, “ominous” is exactly what a Sabbath lull is not: a Sabbath lull is a safe, perhaps boring pause. But in the morally inverted world fo Poker Flats, it is 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.”
The detachment and irony in these words matches the almost comic detachment of Oakhurst: Someone is after him and “likely it’s me.” Harte also ties the comment and the thought together with the repeated “r”: reckon, reflected.
The register of the narrator differs from the register of the character’s thoughts. Mr. Oakhurst would never have said, “conscious of any predisposing cause”. This creates a detachment between the reader and the characters.
Harte also works out the irony at the level of plot. The people of Poker Flats eject a four persons of questionable morality on the basis of the sudden change in “morality”. The charge against the Oakhusrst primarily motivated by the fact that Oakhurst had won handily at poker:
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.
We later learn that Oakhurst had been beaten a young man at poker, took all his money — then gave it back (in secret), warning the young man to never play poker again.
Joining Oakhurst in the ejection were two prostitutes and a drunk. While the drunk shows himself a vicious scoundrel, Oakhurst and the prostitutes show themselves of the highest moral caliber. It is not right to say that Harte has the characters redeem themselves; the characters all stayed in their character.
As the quartet leave town they stop from exhaustion at the behest of the drunk. Into their “camp” come a couple running away from the town over the mountain to come to marry in Poker Flats. The couple are identified as the “Innocent” and a young lady whose father runs the temperance house. Thus, the morally pure find themselves encamped with the scoundrels. Indeed, they are cared for by the very persons rejected by the settlements of morality.
In time, the virgin and the prostitute find themselves alone and snowed in in a cabin, where they starve to death:
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.
The words “Even the law of Poker Flats” sting viciously at this point. The “morally” upright people of Poker Flats lead to the death of these women.
Harte also works the inversion of the hero. The city is not the hero — and it seems that it might be Oakhurst. But even Oakhurst fails in his rush to save the camp. He was found to have committed suicide, after writing his tombstone in the bark of a tree:
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.