Mike brought out the old flintlock rifle and Louie decided he just had to have it. Louie wasn’t the only one. That muzzleloader was getting a lot of attention from guys in the “gun room” – their name for the meeting hall in the scruffy and threadbare Days Inn just off the interstate in north central Illinois.
Mike’s recently acquired muzzleloader had a hard walnut stock that was in good shape. The engraving on the lock plate testified to the craftsmanship of the maker, and the long toe on the butt reflected the style typical of southern gunmakers. The collectors in the room who specialized in Kentucky or Tennessee long rifles wanted to think of it as being from their regions of interest. Those guys whose love was the work of Indiana gunsmiths were certain the rifle must have come from the southern part of the Hoosier state. It was a historic-rifle Rorschach test.
Louie made Mike an offer that was several times more than what Mike paid for it. But Mike wouldn’t bite. Though the rifle was unsigned by its maker (a signature would be found engraved on an inlaid plate on top of the barrel, and would add to the value and interest of the gun), Mike was certain from the workmanship that he had a particularly valuable rifle on his hands.
Kenny watched from a distance as Louie shuffled off, disappointed and rejected. Kenny looked over his shoulder as he came up to Mike and asked him, “You want to have some fun?”
“What do you have in mind?” Mike said.
“Let’s put your rifle on my table next to my two Hatfields. I wanted to compare them to your new piece, anyway. I can make sure Louie sees it on my table. I'll make sure he sees it. You see where I’m going with this?”
Mike handed Kenny the rifle. “Bring it back when you’re done. Let me know what happens.”
The gun room at Princeton is like a convention of elder intelligence agents. “Everybody in the room is keeping a watch on everyone else,” Kenny said. “Who's talking to who. How long the conversations last. What tables they’re standing near. What they’re looking at while they talk. Does any money change hands? Does something new show up on a guy’s table in the afternoon that wasn’t there in the morning? Everybody’s watching everybody.”
They’re friends, but they’re also competitors. Curt’s specialty is Illinois long guns. Shelby wrote the book on flintlocks from Kentucky makers. Jeff’s focus is the work of Indiana gunsmiths. If you have your eye on an Illinois rifle, you’ll likely be bidding against Curt. If you’re looking to make an offer on a Hatfield from southern Indiana, Jeff might eat your lunch if you don’t act fast.
Back at his own table, Kenny laid Mike’s flintlock next to his two Hatfields, one made by Emmanuel Hatfield of Owensburg, Indiana,
and the other by his brother Washington, or “Wash” as Emmanuel called him. The Emmanuel Hatfield was notable and more valued for two elements: the distinctive chevron nose piece at the end of the barrel, and the 165-year-old photograph of Wash Hatfield holding that very rifle.
Kenny stood back with his arms crossed, admiring the old rifles and comparing common features: the carvings on the stocks, the sweeps of the trigger guards, the curves on the butt plates. He waited for Louie to take the bait. It didn’t take long.
Here comes Louie, strolling by all nonchalant with his hands in his pockets, trying not to look directly at Kenny's table. I couldn’t say for sure, but he may have been whistling “Put on a Happy Face.” Kenny pretended not to notice Louie, and instead made a big show of admiring the rifle that Louie coveted. Think of Lebowski, “The Dude,” admiring his rug “that really tied the room together.”
Louie made several more passes, each time Kenny making a point of not noticing Louie and making some gesture that would suggest new and proud ownership. A comment like “Ahhh, this fits right in.” Or arranging its angle on the table to make the presentation just so.
Louie stomped back to Mike’s table. “So I guess you found a buyer, did you?”
Mike shrugged and showed his palms. “What can I say? Kenny stepped up to the plate!”
They’re competitive and they’re practical jokers. None of it stops them from throwing blankets over the tables at the end of the day, and gathering around bottles of Buffalo Trace or pots of coffee, and telling each other stories long into the evening.