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Outcasts of Poker Flat

PART II of IV

      A man on a horse came down the trail. In the fresh, open face of the person approaching 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 calm, won the whole fortune--amounting to some forty dollars--of the young man. After the game was finished, Mr. Oakhurst drew the young, would-be gambler behind the door and thus advised him: Tommy, you're a good fellow, but you can't gamble worth a cent. Don't ever try it again." He then handed him his money back and so made a faithful friend of Tom Simson.
      The expression on the face of the young man and the friendly way in which he called out to Oakhurst showed that he remembered all of this. He was on his way, he explained, to Poker Flat to make his fortune. "Alone?" asked Oakhurst. No, not exactly alone. In fact, (smiling) he had run away with Piney Woods. Didn't Mr. Oakhurst remember Piney? She used to wait on tables at the Temperance House. they had been engaged a long time but old Jake Woods, her father,and objected, and so they had run away, and were going to Poker flat to get married, and here they were. And they were tired out, and how lucky it was that they had found a place to camp, and company. All of this the Innocent told rapidly, while Piney, a rather fat but pretty girl of fifteen, came out from behind the pine tree where, very much embarrassed, she had hidden herself, and rode to the side of her lover.
      Mr. Oakhurst was seldom sentimental and hardly ever troubled himself with questions of right or wrong. He had a feeling, however, that the situation was not so fortunate for the two young people as Simson believed. He remembered to kick Uncle Billy, who was about to express an opinion on the matter, and Uncle Billy, though still quite drunk, was able to recognize in Mr. Oakhurst's kick, a superior power which he must not question further. Mr. Oakhurst then advised Simson and his companion to continue on their way and not to lose any more time--but without result. He even pointed out that there was no food or means of making a camp. Unfortunately, the Innocent answered this argument by assuring the party that he had with him an extra mule loaded with supplies. He also mentioned that, just a short distance from the trail, there was a deserted cabin where they could pass the night. "Piney can stay with Mrs. Oakhurst," said the Innocent, pointing to the Duchess, "and I can take care of myself."
      Nothing but another warning kick from Mr. Oakhurst saved Uncle Billy from bursting out laughing at this mention of "Mrs. Oakhurst." As it was, he felt forced to move a short distance up the trail until he could control himself. There he told the story to the tall pine trees, with many a slap of his leg and the usual swear words. When he returned to the party he found them seated by a fire--for the air had grown strangely chill and the sky dark--in apparently friendly conversation. Piney was talking with much enthusiasm to the Duchess, who was in turn listening with an interest she had not shown for many days. The Innocent was talking, apparently with equal effect, to Mr. Oakhurst and Mother Shipton, who was also showing unusual signs of being friendly. "It this here some kind of party or celebration?" asked Uncle Billy, as he observed the group, the dancing flames of the fire, and the animals tied nearby. Though his mind was still heavy from the whiskey he had drunk, an idea seemed suddenly to strike him. It was apparently of a humorous nature, for he felt forced again to control himself and to push his hand into his mouth in order to keep from laughing.
      As the shadows crept slowly up the mountain, a fresh wind rocked the tops of the pine trees and moaned through their long, sad branches. The ruined cabin, covered with more of these branches, was set apart for the ladies. As the two lovers parted, they exchanged a kiss, so openly and honestly that it might be heard above the movement of the trees. The tired Duchess and the bad-mannered MotherShipton were probably too surprised at such an expression of true love to say anything, and so turned without a word to the cabin. More wood was thrown on the fire to keep it burning, the men lay down before the door, and in a few minutes were asleep.
      Mr. Oakhurst was a light sleeper. Toward morning he woke up stiff 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 waking up the other sleepers, for there was no time to lose. But turning to where Uncle Billy had been lying, he found him gone. A suspicion came to his mind and he swore silently to himself. He ran to the spot where the mules had been tied; they were no longer there. Their tracks were already disappearing in the snow.
      The sudden excitement brought Mr. Oakhurst back to the fire with his usual gambler's calm. He did not wake the others. The Innocent lay there sleeping peacefully, a smile on his broad, simple face; the young Piney slept beside her more experienced sisters as sweetly as though being watched over by two angels from heaven; and Mr. Oakhurst, drawing his blanket over his shoulders, stroked his mustache and waited for day to come. It came slowly with a rapidly moving fall of snow that, seeming to dance before his eyes, confused him. What could be seen of the trail and the mountains seemed suddenly to have changed in some strange way. Mr. Oakhurst looked over the valley, and his opinion of the present and the future was expressed in two words, "snowed in!"