Pike And Poker – American Travel

IT was before we left St. Louis that I received a letter inviting us to visit in the town of Louisiana, Mo. I quote a portion of it: Louisiana is in Pike County, a county famous for its big red apples, miles of rock roads, fine old estates, Rhine scenery, capons, rare old country hams, and poker. Pike County means more to Missouri than Missouri does to Pike.

Do you remember “Jim Bludso of the ` Prairie Belle’ “?

He weren’t no saint—them engineers Is pretty much all alike

One wife in Natchez-under-the-Hill

And another one here in Pike.

We can show you “the wilier-bank on the right,” where Bludso ran the Prairie Belle’ aground and made good with his life his old promise:

I’ll hold her nozzle agin the bank Till the last galoot’s ashore.

We can also show you the home of Champ Clark, and the largest nursery in the world, and a meadow where, twenty-five years ago, a young fellow threw down his hayfork and said to his companion : “Sam, I ‘m going to town to study law with Champ Clark. Some day I’m going to be Governor of this State.” He was Elliott W. Major, and he is Governor today.

The promise held forth by this letter appealed to me. It is always interesting to see whether a man like Champ Clark lives in a house with ornamental iron fences on the roof and iron urns in the front yard ; like-wise there is a sort of fascination for a man of my extensive ignorance, in hearing not merely how the Governor of Missouri decided to become Governor, but in finding out his name. Then those hams and capons—how many politicians can compare for interest with a tender capon or a fine old country ham? And perhaps more alluring to me than any of these was the idea of going to visit in a strange State, and a strange town, and a strange house—the house of a total stranger.

We accepted.

Our host met us with his touring car and proceeded to make good his promises about the nursery, and the scenery, and the roads, and the estates, and as we bowled along he told us about “Pike.” It is indeed a great county. And the fact that it was originally settled by Virginians, Kentuckians, and Carolinians still stamps it strongly with the qualities of the South. Though north of St. Louis on the map, it is south of St. Louis in its spirit. Indeed, Louisiana is the most Southern town in appearance and feeling that we visited upon our travels. The broad black felt hats one sees about the streets, the luxuriant mustaches and goatees—all these things mark the town, and if they are not enough, you should see “Indy” Gordon as she walks along puffing at a bulldog pipe black as her own face.

Never outside of Brittany and Normandy have I seen roads so full of animals as those of Pike County. From the great four-horse teams, drawing produce to and from the beautiful estate called “Falicon,” to the mule teams and the saddle horses and the cows and pigs and chickens and dogs, all the quadrupeds and bipeds domesticated by mankind were there upon the roads to meet us and to protest, by various antics, against the invasion of the motor car. Dogs hurled themselves at the car as though to suicide ; chickens extended themselves in shrieking dives across our course; pigs arose from the luxurious mud with grunts of frantic disapproval, and cantered heavily into the fields; cows trotted lumberingly before us, their hind legs and their fore legs moving, it seemed, without relation to each other; a goat ran round and round the tree to which he was attached; mules pointed their ears to heaven, and opened their eyes wide in horror and amazement; beautiful saddle horses bearing countrymen, or rosy-cheeked young women from the farms, tried to climb into the boughs of wayside trees for safety, and four-horse teams managed to get themselves involved in a manner only rivaled by a ball of yarn with which a kitten is allowed to work its own sweet will.

Our host took all these matters calmly. When a mule protested at our presence on the road, it would merely serve as a reminder that, “Pike County furnished most of the mules for the Spanish war”; or, when a saddle horse showed signs of homicidal purpose, it would draw the calm observation, “Pike is probably the greatest county in the whole United States for saddle horses.

`Missouri King,’ the undefeated champion saddle horse of the world, was raised here.”

So we progressed amid the outraged animals.

My feeling as I alighted at last on the step before our host’s front door was one of definite relief. For dinner is the meal I care for most, and man, with all his faults, the animal I most enjoy.

The house was genial like its owner—it was just the sort of house I like; large and open, with wide halls, spacious rooms, comfortable beds and chairs, and ash trays everywhere.

“I ‘ve asked some men in for dinner and a little game,” our host informed us, as he left us to our dressing.

Presently we heard motors arriving in the drive, beneath our windows. When we descended, the living room was filled with men in dinner suits. (Oh, yes; they wear them in those Mississippi River towns, and they fit as well as yours does!)

When we had been introduced we all moved to the dining room.

At each place was a printed menu with the heading “At _Home Abroad”—a hospitable inversion of the general title of these chapters—and with details as follows:

A COUNTRY DINNER

Old Pike County ham, Pike County capons and other Pike County essentials, with Pike County Colonels.

At the bottom of the card was this—shall I call it warning?

Senator Warner once said to Colonel Roosevelt : “Pike County babies cut their teeth on poker chips.”

I have already said that Pike is a county with a South-ern savor, but I had not realized how fully that was true until I dined there. I will not say that I have never tasted such a dinner, for truth I hold even above politeness. All I will say is that if ever before I had met with such a meal the memory of it has departed—and, I may add, my memory for famous meals is considered good to the point of irritation.

The dinner (save for the “essentials”) was entirely made up of products of the county. More, it was even supervised and cooked by county products, for two particularly sweet young ladies, members of the family, were flying around the kitchen in their pretty evening gowns, helping and directing Molly.

Molly is a pretty mulatto girl. Her skin is like a smooth, light-colored bronze, her eye is dark and gentle, like that of some domesticated animal, her voice drawls in melodious cadences, and she has a sort of shyness which is very fetching.

“Ah cain’t cook lak they used to cook in the ole days,” she smiled in response to my tribute to the dinner, later. “The Kuhnel was askin’ jus’ th’ othah day if ah could make ‘im some ash cake, but ah haid to tell ‘im ah could n’t. Ah ‘ve seen ma gran’fatha make it lots o’ times, but folks cain’t make it no mo’, now-a-days.”

Poor benighted Northerner that I am, I had to ask what ash cake was. It is a kind of corn cake, Molly told me, the parent, so to speak, of the corn dodger, and the grandparent of hoecake. It has to be prepared carefully and then cooked in the hot ashes—cooked “jes so,” as Molly said.

Having learned about ash cake, I demanded more Pike County culinary lore, whereupon I was told, partly by my host, and partly by Molly, about the oldtime wed-ding cooks.

Wedding cooks were the best cooks in the South, supercooks, with state-wide reputations. When there was a wedding a dinner was given at the home of the bride, for all the wedding guests, and it was in the preparation of this repast that the wedding cook of the bride’s family showed what she could do. That dinner was on the day of the wedding. On the next day the entire company repaired to the home of the groom’s family, where another dinner was served—a dinner in which the wedding cook belonging to this family tried to outdo that of the day before. This latter feast was known as the “infair.” But all these old Southern customs seem to have departed now, along with the wed-ding cooks themselves. The latter very seldom came to sale, being regarded as the most valuable of all slaves. Once in a while when some leading family was in financial difficulties and was forced to sell its wedding cook she would bring as much as eight or ten times the price of an ordinary female slave.

After dinner, when we moved out to the living room, we found a large, green table all in place, with the chips arranged in little piles. But let me introduce you to the players.

First, there was Colonel Edgar Stark, our host, genial and warm-hearted over dinner ; cold and inscrutable behind his spectacles when poker chips appeared.

Then Colonel Charlie Buffum, heavily built, but with a similar dual personality.

Then Colonel Frank Buffum, State Highway Commissioner; or, as some one called him later in the evening, when the chips began to gather at his place, State “highwayman.”

Then Colonel Dick Goodman, banker, raconteur, and connoisseur of edibles and “essentials.”

Then Colonel George S. Cake, who, when not a Colonel, is a Commodore : commander of the “Betsy,” flagship of the Louisiana Yacht Club, and the most famous craft to ply the Mississippi since the “Prairie Belle.” (Don’t “call” Colonel Cake when he raises you and at the same time raises his right eyebrow.)

Then Colonel Dick Hawkins, former Collector of the Port of St. Louis, and more recently (since there has been so little in St. Louis to collect) a gentleman farmer. (Colonel Hawkins always wins at poker. The question is not “Will he win?” but “How much?”)

Only two men in the game were not, so far as I discovered, Colonels.

One, Major Dave Wald, has been held back in title because of time devoted to the pursuit of literature. Major Wald has written a book. The subject of the book is Poker. As a tactician, he is perhaps unrivaled in Missouri. He will look at a hand and instantly declare the percentage of chance it stands of filling in the draw, according to the law of chance. One hand will be, to Major Wald, a “sixteen-time hand”; another a “thirty-two time hand,” and so on—meaning that the player has one chance in sixteen, or in thirty-two, of filling.

The other player was merely a plain “Mister,” like ourselves—Mr. John W. Matson, the corporation lawyer. At first I felt sorry for Mr. Matson. It seemed hard that the rank of Colonel had been denied him. But when I saw him shuffle and deal, I was no longer sorry for him, but for myself. With the possible exception of General Bob Williams (who won’t play any more now that he has been appointed post-master), and Colonel Clarence Buell, who used to play in the big games on the Mississippi boats, Mr. Matson can shuffle and deal more rapidly and more accurately than any man in Missouri.

Colonel Buell was present, as was Colonel Lloyd Stark, but neither played. Colonel Buell had intended to, but on being told that my companion and I were from New York he declined to “take the money.” The Colonel—but to say “the Colonel” in Pike County is hardly specific—Colonel Buell, I mean, is the same gentleman who fought the Indians, long ago, with Buffalo Bill, and who later acted as treasurer of the Wild West Show on its first trip to Europe. Some one informed me that the Colonel—Colonel Buell, I mean—was a capitalist, but the information was beside the mark, for I had already seen the diamond ring he wears—a most remarkable piece of landscape gardening.

During the evening Colonel Buell, who stood for an hour or two and watched the play, spoke of certain things that he had seen and done which, as I estimated it, could not have been seen or done within the last sixty years. “How old is Colonel Buell?” I asked another Colonel.

“Colonel,” asked the Colonel, “how old are you ?” “Colonel,” replied the Colonel, “I am exactly in my prime.”

“I know that, Colonel,” said the Colonel, “but what is your age?”

“Colonel,” returned the Colonel suavely, “I have forgotten my exact age. But I know that I am somewhere between eighty and one hundred and forty-two.”

It was Mr. Matson’s deal. He dealt. The cards passed through the air and fell, one on the other, in neat piles. (If you prefer it, Mr. Matson can drop a fan-shaped hand before you, all ready to pick up.) And from the time that the first hand was played I knew that here, as in St. Louis, my companion and I were babes among the lions. I do not know how he played, but I do know that I played along as best I could, only trying not to lose too much money at once.

But why rehearse the pathetic story? I spoke in a former chapter of Missouri poker, and Pike County is a county in Missouri. Bet on a good pat hand and some one always holds a better one. Bluff and they call you. Call and they beat you. There is no way of winning from Missouri. Missouri poker players are mahatmas. They have an occult sense of cards. Babes at their mothers’ breasts can tell the difference between a straight and a flush long before they have the power of speech. Once, while in Pike County, I asked a little boy how many brothers and sisters he had. “One brother and three sisters,” he replied, and added: “A full house.”

The Missouri gentlemen, so gay, so genial, at the dinner table, take on a frigid look when the cards and chips appear. They turn from gentle, kindly human beings into relentless, ravening wolves, each intent upon the thought of devouring the other. And when, over a poker game, some player seems to enter into a pleasant conversation, the other players know that even that is a bluff—a blind to cover up some diabolic plot.

Once during the game, for instance, Colonel Hawkins started in to tell me something of his history. And I, bland simpleton, believed we were conversing sans ulterior motive.

“I used to be in politics,” he said. “Then I was in the banking business. But I’ve gone back to farming now, because it is the only honest business in the world. In fact—”

But at that juncture the steely voices of half the other players at the table interrupted.

“Ante !” they cried. “Ante, farmer !”

Whereupon Colonel Hawkins, who by that time had to crane his neck to see the table over his pile of chips—a pile of chips like the battlements of some feudal lord—anted suavely.

By midnight Colonel Buell, who had stood behind me for a time and watched my play, showed signs of fatigue and anguish. And a little later, after having seen me try to “put it over” with three sixes, he sighed heavily and went home—a fine, slender, courtly figure, straight as a gun barrel, walking sadly out into the night. Next Major Wald ceased to play for himself, but began to take an interest in my hand. Under his supervision during the last fifteen minutes of the game I made a tiny dent in Colonel Hawkins’s stacks of chips. But it is only just to Colonel Hawkins to say that, by that time, the Missourians were so sorry for us that they were making the most desperate efforts not to win from us any more than they could help.

When the game broke up, Major Wald and Colonel Hawkins showed concern about our future.

“How far are you young men going, did you say ?” asked Colonel Hawkins.

“To the Pacific Coast,” I answered.

At that the two veteran poker players looked at each other solemnly, in silence, and shook their heads.

“All the way to the coast, eh?” demanded Major Wald. Then: “Do you expect to play cards much as you go along ?”

I wished to uphold the honor of New York as best I could, so I tried to reply gamely.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Whenever anybody wants a game they ‘ll find us ready.”

Again I saw them exchange glances.

“You tell him, Major,” said Colonel Hawkins, walking away.

“Young man,” said Major Wald, placing his hand kindly on my shoulder, “I played poker before you were born. I know a good deal about it. You would n’t take offense if I gave you a pointer about your game?”

“On the contrary,” I said, thinking I was about to hear the inner secrets of Missouri poker, “I shall be most grateful.”

“If I advise you,” he pursued, “will you agree to follow my advice ?”

“Certainly.”

“Well,” said the Major, “don’t you play poker any more while you ‘re in the West. Wait till you get back to New York.”

Seeing the houses of the players next day as I drove about the county, I suspected that even these had been built around the game of poker, for each house has ample accommodations for the “gang” in case the game lasts until too late to go home. In the winter the games occur at the houses of the different Colonels, and there is always a dinner first. But it is in summer that the greatest games occur, for then it is the immemorial custom for the Colonels (and Major Wald and Mr. Matson, too, of course) to charter a steamer and go out on the river. These excursions sometimes last for the better part of a week. Sometimes they cruise. Sometimes they go ashore upon an island and camp. “We take a tribe of cooks and a few cases of `essentials,’ ” one of the Colonels explained to me, “and the game never stops at all.”

My companion and I were tired. The mental strain had told upon us. Soon after the Colonels, the Major, and Mr. Matson went, we retired. It seemed to me that I had hardly closed my eyes when I heard a faint rap at my bedroom door.. But I must have slept, for there was sunlight streaming through the window..

“What is it?” I called.

The voice of our host replied.

“Breakfast will be ready any time you want it,” he declared. “Will you have your toddy now?” Ah! Pike is a great county !

And what do you suppose we had for breakfast? At the center of the table was a pile of the most beautiful and enormous red apples—fragrant apples, giving a sweet, appetizing scent which filled the room. I had thought before that I knew something about apples, but when I tasted these I became aware that no merely good apple, no merely fine apple, would ever satisfy my taste again. These apples, which are known as the “Delicious,” are to all other apples that I know as Missouri poker is to all other poker. They are in a class absolutely alone, and, in case you get some on a lucky day, I want to tell you how to eat them with your breakfast. Don’t eat them as you eat an ordinary apple, but either fry them, with a slice of bacon, or cut them up and take them as you do peaches—that is, with cream and sugar. Did you ever see an apple with flesh white and firm, yet tender as a pear at the exact point of perfect ripeness? Did you ever taste an apple that seemed actually to melt upon your tongue? That is the sort of apple we had for breakfast.