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Outcasts of Poker Flat

PART III of IV

      A careful check of the supplies, which, fortunately for the party, had been stored within the cabin and so escaped the stealing fingers of Uncle Billy, showed that with care these supplies night last the group for ten days. "That is," said Mr. Oakhurst, aside too the Innocent, "if you agree to let us share your things. If you don't agree--and perhaps it would be better for you if you didn't--then we must wait until Uncle Billy gets back with fresh supplies." For some strange reason, Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to make known the fact that Uncle Billy had stolen the mules. He preferred to let the others think that the old man had simply wandered from the camp during the night and by accident driven them away. He dropped a warning to the Duchess and Mother Shipton, who, of course, knew something of Uncle Billy's regular habits. "They'll find out the real truth about all of us later," he explained. "And there's no use frightening them now."
      Tom Simson not only offered all of his supplies for use by the others but seemed to enjoy the idea that the group was cut off in this way from the outside world. "We'll have a good camp for a week, and then the snow will disappear, and we'll all go back together." The cheerful manner of the young man and Mr. Oakhurst's calm manner had their influence over the rest of the group. The Innocent gathered more pine branches and fixed the roof of the cabin so that it no longer leaked. The Duchess directed Piney in the arrangement of the inside with a taste and skill that opened the eyes of the simple girl with wonder. "I suppose you're used to beautiful at Poker Flat," said Piney. The Duchess turned away sharply to hide the color that rose to her cheeks, and Mother Shipton asked Piney not to talk so much. Again, while returning from an unsuccessful trip to locate the trail, Mr. Oakhurst heard the sound of laughter ringing through the hills. He stopped in some alarm, thinking that perhaps the group had found the whiskey which he had so carefully hidden away. "And yet it doesn't sound like whiskey," he said to himself. Only when the caught sight, through the storm, of the group gathered around a big fire did he understand that they were simply engaged in having a little "honest fun."
      Whether Mr. Oakhurst had hidden his cards with the whiskey as something else to be kept away from the group, I cannot say. It was certain that, in Mother Shipton's words, "he didn't mention cards once" during this second evening. Fortunately, the time was passed pleasantly with an accordion which Tom Simson had brought along with him. Despite some difficulty in playing it, Piney Woods succeeded in drawing out a certain music from its keys, and the Innocent accompanied her in song. The high point of the evening was reached with the singing of a special camp meeting hymn, which the lovers, joining hands, sang in a loud voice. The song had a swing to it which was catching, and the other members of the party joined in at the end:
I'm proud to live and serve God
And I'm certain to die in His Army.
      The pine trees rocked, the wind moaned above the heads of the unfortunate group as they sat around their camp fire and tried in this manner to face their situation as bravely as possible. Later that night the storm let up, the rolling clouds parted, and a few stars shone above the sleeping camp. Mr. Oakhurst, who, as a gambler, had learned to get along on the smallest possible amount of sleep, had divided the night watch with Tom Simson. Yet he somehow succeeded in taking upon himself the greater part of this work. He excused himself to the Innocent by saying that he had "often gone whole week without sleeping." "Doing what?" "Gambling," answered Oakhurst. "When a man gets a run of luck, he never gets tired. The luck generally gives in first. Luck," continued the gambler, "is a very strange thing. All you know about it for certain is that it is sure to change. And it's finding out when it's going to change that makes you and good or bad gambler. We've had a run of bad luck since we left Poker Hart--you come along, and you fall right into it too. But if we play our cards well, we'll come out all right in the end. For," added the gambler cheerfully,

I'm proud to live and serve God
And I'm certain to die in His Army.
      The third day came, and the sun, looking through the white-curtained valley, saw the outcasts divide their supplies of food for the morning meal. Each day these supplies grew less and less. The sun warmed the air a little and brought some cheer to the group; yet it also made clear the deep snow which was piled high around the cabin and which stretched out into the distance like some broad, unending sea of white, covering everything as far as the eye could see. Through the unusually clear air, the smoke from the town of Poker Flat rose miles away. Mother Shipton saw it and did not hesitate to express her low opinion of the people who lived there. It did her good, she told the Duchess. "Just go out there and swear a little and you'll see how much better you feel." She then set herself to the work of keeping "the child" happy, as she and the Duchess had begun to call Piney. Piney was much more than a child, but special name pleased the two older women and helped to explain to them the fact that Piney didn't use bad language and was so innocent in manner.
      When night crept up through the valley, the sad notes of the accordion rose and fell again. But music failed to satisfy the empty feeling caused by the lack of food, and something new was suggested by Piney to help pass the time--storytelling. Since neither Mr. Oakhurst nor his two women companions cared to say much about their own past experiences, this plan too would failed--except for the Innocent. Some months ago he had chanced upon a copy of Homer's Iliad. He now offered to tell the main events of this story--in his own words, of course. And so for the rest of that night the Gods of Homer walked the earth again, and the men of Troy fought against the men of Greece, while the great pines along the valleys seemed to bow their heads in deep respect. Mr. Oakhurst listened with quiet satisfaction. He was especially interested in the fate of "Ash-heels," as the Innocent insisted on calling the "fast-footed Achilles."