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Outcasts of Poker Flat

PART IV of IV

      So, with little food and much of Homer and the accordion, a whole week passed over the heads of the outcasts--seven long days and nights. The sun again failed them, and from dark skies the snow once more fell over the land. Day by day, closer around them drew the circle of snow until at last, like prisoners, they looked up sadly at the white walls which rose twenty feet above their heads. It became more and more difficult to find wood for their fire, even from the fallen trees near them, half hidden in the snow. Yet no one complained. The lovers turned from the sad sight and looked into each other's eyes and were happy. Mr. Oakhurst settled himself calmly to the losing game before him. The Duchess, more cheerful than she had been, took over the care of Piney. Only Mother Shipton--once the strongest of the party--seemed to grow sick and weak. Late one night, after ten days had gone by, she called Oakhurst to her side. "I'm going," she said in a quiet voice"but don't say anything about it." Don't wake up the kids. Take the package from under my head and open it." Mr. Oakhurst did so. Inside was Mother Shipton's share of the food of the past week, untouched. "Give it to the child," she said, pointing to Piney. "You've gone without food yourself," said the gambler. "That's right," said the woman as she lay down again, and, turning her face to the wall, passed quietly away.
      The accordion was put aside that day, and Homer was forgotten. When the body of Mother Shipton had been buried in the snow, Mr. Oakhurst took the Innocent to one side and showed him two snowshoes which he himself had made from some cord and some old pieces of wood. "There's one chance in a hundred to save her yet," said Mr. Oakhurst, looking to Piney. "It's there," pointing toward Poker Flat. "If you can reach there in two days you can still save her." "And what about you?" asked Tom Simson. "I'll stay here," was the short answer.
      The two lovers parted a long kiss. You are not going too?" said the Duchess as she saw Mr. Oakhurst apparently waiting to accompany the Innocent. "Only as far as the head of the valley," he answered. He turned suddenly, and kissed the Duchess, leaving her pale face alive with color and her whole body shaking with surprise. Night came, but not Mr. Oakhurst. It brought the storm again and the driving snow. Then the Duchess, while taking care of the fire, found that someone had piled enough wood beside the cabin to last a few days longer. The tears came to her eyes, but she did not let Piney see her crying.
      The women slept but little that night. In the morning, looking into each other's faces, they read their fate. Neither spoke, but Piney, now taking the place of the stronger, drew near and placed her arms around the Duchess. They kept this position for the rest of the day. That night the storm rose to its greatest strength and, breaking through the protecting pines, even reached within the cabin.
      Toward morning they found themselves unable to keep the fire going any longer and it gradually died away. As the ashes slowly became cold, the Duchess crept closer to Piney and broker the silence of many hours: "Piney, can you pray?" "No, dear," said Piney, simply. The Duchess, without knowing exactly why, felt better, and putting her head upon Piney's shoulder, spoke no more. And so, sitting close together in this position, they fell asleep.
      They wind grew less tense as though it feared to wake them. Yet a light snow, shaken from the long pine branches, blew into the cabin and settled about them as they slept. The moon looked down through the breaking clouds upon what had been their camp, but all signs of human life and death were happily hidden under the white blanket of snow which now cover everything.       They slept all that day and the next, nor did they wake when voices and footsteps broke the silence of the camp. And when warm and friendly fingers wiped the snow from their faces you could hardly have told from the equal calm that showed in their expressions which had died more peacefully. They still lay locked in each other's arms.
      But at the head of the valley, on one side of the largest pine tree, they found a playing card, the two of clubs, pinned to the bark of the tree with a hunting knife. It bore the following, written in pencil, in a strong hand:
Under this tree
lies the body
of
JOHN OAKHURST
who struck a run of bad luck
on the 23rd of November, 1852
and handed in his checks
on the 7th December, 1852.

      And cold and dead, with a small pistol by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, under the snow lay he who was once the strongest, and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.

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Bibliography

This story is from American Classic Vol.5 published by Regent Publishing Company. The original author is Bret Harte, but it was simplified and adapted for greater reading pleasure by Robert D. Nixon. All rights reserved to the author(s).