The story takes place in Poker Flat, a small California gold mining community. Certain inhabitants of Poker Flat feel that the community is going downhill. They have lost a lot of money, and worry that people's morals are sinking. Consequently a secret committee is elected. This committee decides who will be killed and who expatriated. One November morning, the stoic John Oakhurst, an avid poker player and the story's protagonist, notices a "Sabbath lull" in the air on Poker Flat's main street and suspects the town is onto yet another round of exiling. On November 23, 1850 four people are exiled. The group consists of Duchess, a saloon girl, Mother Shipton, a madam, Uncle Billy, a local drunk and thief, and John Oakhurst, a poker player, who won a lot of money from the people sitting on the secret committee. They are instructed not to come back, on pain of death. The four characters get together and leave Poker Flat, heading to the nearby town of Sandy Bar, only a day's journey away but accessible only via a treacherous mountain pass in the Sierra Mountains range. After hours of traveling, Oakhurst’s companions get tired, and despite his remonstrances they decide to stop and rest. Despite Oakhurst's warnings that they do not have enough food to survive, the rest of his party decides it can survive on liquor. Meanwhile, Oakhurst encounters a young runaway couple, Piney Woods and Tom Simons, heading to Poker Flat to get married and seek their fortune. Tom Simons, also called “The Innocent,” has met Oakhurst before. They played Poker together, and Oakhurst won a great deal of money from him. Afterwards, he told Tom never to play poker again, and returned him his money. As a result of this Tom feels positively towards Oakhurst. He is thrilled to see him, and the young couple decides to spend some time with the group, obviously unaware of the fact that they were exiled for being immoral. Tom leads the group to an old cabin that he had found, and they spend the night. Upon waking, Oakhurst realizes that Uncle Billy has stolen off with the group's mules.
In keeping with the story's roots in the Regionalism or "local color" genre, Harte's story focuses on the particularities of one region, which in this case is a gold mining region around the Sierra Mountains in California. That said, Harte also departs significantly from the genre's focus on a region's everyday qualities, instead choosing to set the story in a time of crisis for the town of Poker Flat. Likewise, the story's protagonist, John Oakhurst, is at once a classically wise, stoic cowboy/gambler figure befitting his Wild West setting and a character in crisis himself; not only is he exiled, a disruption of his status quo, but he finds himself in a fatal situation where, unlike in the poker games to which he is accustomed, he cannot win. In these ways, Harte both adopts Regionalism and departs with its conventions, reworking the genre in order to highlight the hypocrisy that rules the otherwise classic Western town of Poker Flat.
The story also relies heavily on Biblical symbolism that positions John Oakhurst as a Christ figure. The narrative begin with the image of two men hanging from the boughs of sycamore trees in a gulch near the town, imagery that naturally calls to mind the two thieves that hung beside Christ during his crucifixion. In fact, the punishment that Oakhurst and his companions endure—exile into the wilderness—is loaded with Biblical allusions, particularly the story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the desert and the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. By referencing stories in which Christ (or Christians) suffer unjustly, this imagery implies that John Oakhurst is a martyr, persecuted for sins that he didn’t commit.
In a broad sense, the opening of the story actually functions much like an allegory, as it lends characters names like Tom “the Innocent," whereas the exiles are earlier referred to as “improper” in the eyes of Poker Flat. Even the names that refer to trees implicitly editorialize the characters’ dramatic situation, as “Piney Woods” and “Oakhurst” refer to the idyllic yet tragic environment in which the characters find themselves. By referring to the pure environment in which the characters inadvertently serve a death sentence, these names automatically function as allegory, as they imply that John Oakhurst and Piney Woods are pure and innocent despite their dramatic situation.
This is heightened by the narrator’s frequent use of hyperbole, which again serves to emphasize the unjust nature of the characters’ situation. For example, the narrator says of Tom and Piney’s kiss that it was “so honest and sincere that it might have been heard above the swaying pines.” Against the backdrop of their unwitting encounter with sentenced criminals, this hyperbole functions to magnify the theme of innocence versus guilt.
The narrator makes heavy use of foreshadowing, as well. The ominous tone with which the story begins does not relax when the town's act of "frontier justice" is achieved; instead it pervades the story, casting over all the event and actions a sense of the tragedy that will eventually befall the characters. The setting likewise serves to foreshadow the tragic ending of the story by functioning much like a character or divine being by interfering with the characters’ journey in the form of landscape and weather. For example, the red dust of Poker Flat has an eerie, assaulting effect on Oakhurst and can perhaps symbolize the haziness of the truth for the supposedly upright citizens of Poker Flat.