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Outcasts of Poker Flat

PART I of IV

      As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1852, he seemed to sense a change that had taken place in the town's state of mind since the night before. Two of three men, talking seriously together, stopped as he approached and exchanged looks that seemed to carry a special meaning.
      Mr. Oakhurst's calm, good-looking face showed little concern for these matters. Whether he was aware of their cause, was another question. "I supposed that they're after somebody," he said to himself. "Probably it's me." He returned to his pocket the handkerchief with which he had been wiping the red dust of Poker Flat from his clothes, and quietly put out of his mind all further thoughts in this matter.
       In point of fact, Poker Flat was "after somebody." It had recently lost several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and an important man of the town. The people, having lost patience, were about to carry out a plan that was no more legal than the events which had brought it into being. But such was their enthusiasm at the moment for "cleaning up the town" that this fact did not concern them. A secret group had formed with the purpose of ridding the place of everyone suspected of not being completely honest. Already, two of the worst characters in town were hanging by the neck from the branches of two trees in the valley. Several others, whose actions were less serious, but still subject to suspicion, were to be sent away--by force, if necessary.
       Mr. Oakhurst was right in supposing that he was included in the last group. A few men of the town had advised hanging him as an example to other gamblers, and as a sure method of paying themselves back from his pockets the various amounts of money he had won from them. "It's just not right," said Jim Wheeler, "to let this fellow from Roaring Camp--a complete stranger--carry away our money." But there were others who had also won from Mr. Oakhurst, and their sense o fair play mad them oppose to such move.
       Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence calmly. 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 advantage in favor of the person doing the dealing.
       A guard of armed men accompanied the group of four persons who were thus asked to leave town. Besides Mr. Oakhurst, who was known to be a calm but dangerous man, and for whom the armed guard was really intended, the party included a young woman familiarly known as "the Duchess," another who had won the name of "Mother Shipton" and an old man, "Uncle Billy," who was a suspected robber of gold from the claims, and the worst drunk in town. The group moved in silence; neither those who stood along the road to watch nor those who accompanied them spoke. Only when the whole party reached the edge of town, the leader of the armed guard spoke a few words--directly to the point. the group of four was warned never to return to Poker Flat upon risk of their lives.
      As the armed men disappeared, the angry feelings of the group found expression in a few tears from the Duchess, some bad language from Mother Shipton, and some final swear words from Uncle Billy. The ever calm Oakhurst alone remained silent. He listened quietly to Mother Shipton's desire to cut somebody's heart out, to the repeated statements of the duchess that she would die on the road, to the continuous swearing of Uncle Billy as he rode forward. With the usual good spirits of his kind, he insisted upon changing his own comfortable 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 made just as sad an appearance on "Five Spot" as she had on the mule; Mother Shipton eyed the Duchess continually with bad feeling; and Uncle Billy included the whole party in one sweeping series of swear words.
      The road to Sandy Bar--a camp that, not having as yet experienced the need to rid itself of its bad characters, therefore seemed to offer some hope of receiving the four members of the party--lay on the other side of a very high mountain. It generally took more than a day's hard travel to reach it. In this late season of the year, the party soon passed out of the warmer air of the valley into the dry cold of the Sierras. The trail was narrow and difficult. In early afternoon the Duchess rolled off her horse, threw herself upon the ground, and insisted she would go no further. The rest of the party therefore stopped.
      The spot was unusualy wild. The mountains seemed to rise straight up on three sides, while from the narrow path one could look deep into the valley below. It was, probably, a good place for a camp, had camping been the purpose of the group. But Mr. Oakhurst knew that hardly half of the trip to Sandy Bar had been completed, and the party had with it little food or other supplies. This fact he pointed out to his companions rather sharply, adding that it was foolish of them to "throw up their hands before the game was played out." But they had whiskey with them, and this served them in place of food, rest, or whatever else they needed. In spite of the fact that Oakhurst objected strongly to their drinking, it was not long before the others were under its influence. Uncle Billy passed rapidly from an angry state into a more quiet, almost rapid one; the Duchess became sentimental, and Mother Shipton slept. Mr. Oakhurst alone remained standing, leaning against a tree and calmly watching them.
      Mr. Oakhurst did not drink. It was not good in a business such as his where one must always be in full possession of ones' senses. As he looked down at his companions, he seemed to become even more aware of the fact that the life of a gambler separates him from other men and that, as a result of the special manners and customs that become part of this life, he is almost forced to live apart and alone. At the same time, as though by habit, he began to dust his black clothes and arrange his tie and hat. He washed his hands and face in a nearby stream, and thus for the moment forgot the various things that were troubling his mind. The thought of deserting his weaker and more innocent companions never perhaps occurred to him. Yet he could not help feeling the want of that excitement which formed so much a part of his life as a gambler and which resulted, strangely enough, in the calm manner for which he was famous. He looked at the walls of stone that rose a thousand feet above the circling pines around him; at the sky, darkly clouded, at the valley below, already growing heavy with shadows. And suddenly he heard his name called.