The story takes place in a California community known as Poker Flat, near the town of La Porte. On November 23, 1850, four "immoral" characters are exiled as part of the "cleansing" ofbad elements by the townspeople: John Oakhurst, ( a professional gambler), "The Duchess" (a saloon girl), "Mother Shipton" (a brothel owner), and Uncle Billy, (a drunkard and suspected robber). Theyset out for a less-respectable camp a hard day's journey away over a mountain range, but despite Oakhurst's protests, the rest of the party decides to stop for a rest at noon, only halfway to theirgoal.
They meet runaway lovers on their way to Poker Flat to get married, fifteen-year-old Piney Woods and Tom Simson, or the Innocent, a younger man who admires Oakhurst. Tom leads them to ahalf-butty cabin he discovered. They spend the night there. However, Oakhurst awakens to find a heavy snow storm raging and that Uncle Billy has stolen their mules. The party wait out the storm with fewprovisions.
After a week, Mother Shipton dies, having secretly saved her share of the food for Piney. Oakhurst advises Simson that he will have to go for help. The gambler tells the others he willaccompany the lad part of the way.
The "law of Poker Flat" arrives at the cabin, only to find the Duchess and Piney dead, embracing in a peaceful repose. They both seemed so peaceful and innocent that onecould not tell which was the virgin and which the lady of the evening. Oakhurst is found dead beneath a tree, with a Deringer pistol lying at his side and a bullet in his heart, having committedsuicide. There is a 2 of clubs above his head with a note that reads:
BENEATH THIS TREE LIES THE BODY OF JOHN OAKHURST, WHO STRUCK A STREAK OF BAD LUCK ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER, 1850, AND HANDED IN HISCHIPS ON THE 7TH DECEMBER, 1850.
Simson's fate is not stated but he is presumably the one who tells the "law of Poker Flat" where the outcasts were to find the cabin with the others.