A 'Lassie' Worth Meeting And a Relic Worth Keeping

Realizing to the full that it is politically incorrect these days to mention guns in any favorable context, I find I must, briefly, to explain why I sought the services of a gunsmith.

The story began way back in 1919 when I was 11 years old and came into possession of a Winchester lever-action rifle in the advanced caliber of .40/.65. This was in a series of big-game guns, and the .40/.65 was a favorite in Maine for moose and caribou. And you need to know that in those days conservation was not a heady word, and it was lawful to serve game at the tables in a lumber camp. Any camp feeding enough men had a professional hunter on the payroll whose job was to keep fresh meat in the dingle, handy for the cook, and the odds were heavy on his having a .40/.65.

Halfonse Joe Punty was one of these meat men, and while he was mostly in the deep forest, his home was a short distance up the village street from the general store kept by my Uncle Ralph, who was a Yankee trader whose haggles are well exercised in north-country legend.

Halfonse Joe Punty was a French-speaking Canadian, and he was notoriously slow in paying his grocery bills. When he was in the woods his wife would run up a bill at my uncle's store, and when Halfonse Joe came out to visit his family he would be hard to find with reference to his debt. Then one day my uncle heard that Halfonse Joe was home, and with an itemized bill in his hand, my uncle went to the Punty house and made great alarm at the front door.

Then my uncle ran like a weasel to the back door and was waiting when Halfonse Joe came out on his way to another place. In the high-level economic conference that followed, Halfonse Joe gave my uncle many odd items from his inventory that he could spare, and my uncle gave Halfonse fair credit for each on his overdue bill.

I was visiting with my uncle at the time and helped carry the pile of junk down to the store, a considerable pile as it was valued at $34, and we had to make several trips.

I remember some of the items: some hand tools, two beehives (untenanted), two pairs of roller skates, a pair of oars, wool cards, a blueberry rake, butter paddles, and a bundle of magazine clippings with fancy-work directions in French. Then there was this .40/.65 Winchester, for which my uncle had allowed $3. Just the previous winter, the Maine legislature had enacted a law making it illegal to feed game at lumber-camp tables. Halfonse Joe's meat-man career had ended, and he had no further need for the gun.

My uncle gave the Winchester to me, and since 1919 it has been in this corner or that of my abode, and in desuetude. The most obvious reason for not using the rifle is that I had no ammunition. That series of guns went out of style, and shortly afterward ammunition could not be had unless you'd saved empty shells and could reload them. Another good reason is my own disinterest in firearms.

A further reason the gun was inactive has been a loose sight. Maybe it was loose when Halfonse Joe had it. Maybe Halfonse Joe compensated and didn't need it fixed. I've known it was loose, but why fix the sight on a gun that lacks bullets and only cost my uncle the equivalent of $3?

But a gun-buff friend kept telling me that a collector would pay a bundle for it and suggested a certain reliable gunsmith I could trust with such a valuable antique.

''Keep the gun ready,'' he tells me, without adding for what.

When I stepped into the gun shop, I was most ardently greeted by an amorous female. She was a hound and clearly had been waiting patiently for the right person, someone worthy of her affection, scholarly and genteel. In an ecstacy she waggled her rump so her tail snapped like a buggy whip and her ears flopped in wild approval. I said, ''Hello, dog!'' and the gunsmith by his workbench said, ''It's time for her walk.''

''You walk her on a leash?''

''Oh yes. We got 235 acres here, but the law says to put on a string. She won't step through that door until I string her.''

''I think that's good. Would she run off?''

''Naow! Only if I said to. She don't do nawthin' lessen I say so. I supposed you're looking at the best informed dog you'll ever see.''

''Educated, eh?''

''Right down to a crisp. She's been suggested for the Supreme Court.''

''Think she'll get it?''

''She's had it. But she turned it down. Too smart. Ask her to spell something in Greek!''

I was ready to hand my .40/.65 to him, but he was proud of that dog and wouldn't let me change the subject.

He said, ''Don't try her on any word that's got an ''O'' in it. Fellow was in here the other day and he give her some Greek word with an ''O'' in it. Perplexed her some. She thinks an ''O'' is a Q somebody didn't put a tail on. Made her surly all afternoon.''

I asked him if his hound would run a rabbit.

He said, ''I don't know. But if she did, I'd have to tell her to, first. Dogs love to mind. I wouldn't take a dog that ain't trained to mind; you can have the thing. If our schoolteachers could do for the kids what I done for that hound, you just wouldn't believe it. Do you realize not one cent for that hound's education ever wound up on a tax bill? Is that a .40/.65? I never see one before. What's wrong with it?''

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