My pal, Bob White, had come all the way into town (he lived on a farm about three miles outside of North Lewisburg) to spend an over-night with me - one of those rare occasions when his father, Merritt, allowed him some time away from his daily chores. We arose early on Saturday morning, quickly dressed and ate breakfast, grabbed our .22 caliber rifles and ammunition, and headed for Mike Chamberlain's house to link up with him.
A short time later, we three were on our way, trudging along the old Erie-Lackawana railroad tracks toward the east. Just a short distance down the tracks, we came to "Black Bridge", so named because its metal works had been painted glossy black. The bridge stretched across Spain Creek from one concrete buttment to another, the streambed far below and visible between the crossties and steel tracks of the railroad. Kids considered it to be a dangerous place - a hazard to be crossing at any time because of the frequency of train traffic. Only the brave walked along the rails - those who were weaker in spirit elected to use the board walkways which skirted the sides of the bridge.
We used the bridge and the buttments as observation points as we located large fish swimming in the stream below. Occasionally, one of us would pop off a shot at a fish without much success. We decided it would be better to attempt to shoot one of the stationary tin cans which could be found littering the stream bank. Our ammo pretty much expended, we left the bridge and walked down one of the well-worn trails to the streambed. For the next several minutes, we expended most of the rest of our ammunition just punching holes in various cans. After a short period of time, we explored the area, chatted about whatever topics popped into our minds, and more or less became bored as kids are wont to do.
Then, at about the same instant, we noticed a snake in some weeds just beyond where we were standing. Approaching closer, we recognized the snake as one of the infamous "blue racers." We didn't know the correct scientific nomenclature for the snake, but used the term most commonly associated with it. We all knew it to be a very defensive, and often aggressive snake.
The closer we walked toward the snake, the more panic-like its behavior became. There was hissing and feigned strikes, the head and upper body of the snake rising several inches above the ground. Moving closer still, we three brave young men pointed our weapons in that direction. Suddenly the snake, tired of the attention, turned and began to quickly slither away from us. That action prompted all of us to quickly cross over a wire fence and to get ahead and above the snake on the railroad bed.
The snake started climbing that same wire fence, directly below us. As its head glided through one of the wire quadrangles, Bob snapped up his rifle and fired a shot. The round struck the snake just to the side of its head, and the creature fell to the ground, draped half in and half out of the wire. We approached the victim with caution. Bob was the one who was brave enough to draw closest to the snake, and to eventually pick it up by the tail. It was slender, velvety blue-black in color, and long. As Bob stretched it up and held it out to his side, it was easy to see that it was at least six feet long.
We three formed an expanded triangle. Mike was the farthest down the roadbed bank from the rails and ties, nervously eyeing the snake clasped between Bob's fingers. Bob was a point on the triangle, facing back toward me, his back to the rails and trestle work which made up Black Bridge. I stood on the rails and ties, the one of us closest to town, with my back toward the only viable escape route should Bob do something stupid.
The thought that he could do something stupid had entered my mind as I looked at him and saw that devilish, goofy smile for which he was well-known as it crossed his face. There was a mischevious look in his eyes; I knew immediately that he was contemplating something which I might not like.
"What would happen if I threw this snake on you?" he asked, an evil threat in his voice. His eyes glowed, his smile widened, as he raised up the snake as if preparing to give it a toss in my direction.
Mike, ever the most cautious of our threesome, looked at Bob with a thought that the latter might have just lost his mind. "Don't do it, Bob!" he exclaimed. "He doesn't like snakes. He'll shoot you!"
As if on cue, I slowly raised my .22 caliber rifle in Bob's direction. The palms of my hands were sweating, and I could not divert my eyes from Bob's face. As he looked even more menacing, I slowly and deliberately issued my own warning. "I WILL shoot you, Bob, if you toss that thing at me!"
"He WILL!" Mike added. "Just drop the snake, Bob!"
"Oh, he's not going to shoot me. He doesn't have any ammo left." Bob offered with a great deal of bravado in his voice and demeanor. All the while he stared at me, the snake hanging lifeless in his fingers.
Mustering up all of the resolve that I could exhibit in my voice and body, I stared back at Bob. "I have just one round left," I said. "And I WILL use it on you if you throw that snake on me."
The gears clicked in Bob's head even as I raised the rifle a bit higher. From where he stood he could probably not detect the slight motion of the barrel as I tried to keep it steady, my heart pounding rapidly and the sweat pouring from my hands in rivers.
Time stood still as it does in one of those great movie scenes where the good and bad men face each other. The music swells to a crescendo in the background as the "standoff" becomes the center of the universe. Only one will triumph from the moment, and the question is always "Who?"
Bob gave ground. He tossed the snake to the side with an "Okay." The snake's body arched into the air before it fell and drapped itself across the fence once again.
The air, heavy with tension just a moment before, seemed to vent a sigh of relief. Motion, sounds, and color returned to our world.
Bob stepped toward me as I slowly lowered my rifle. Mike began the short climb up the railbed. "You didn't have a round, did you?" asked Bob, a trace of doubt in his voice and body language. "You wouldn't have shot me, would you?"
I raised the rifle just a bit, off to the side, and slowly pulled back the bolt. The .22 caliber round ejected in a high arch and then fell onto the rocks between the rails, a distinctive "ping" echoing as it struck. Mike stood with his eyes wide open, and a "See, I told you!" expression on his face. Bob stepped backward ever so slightly, the color drained from his face, his rifle at his side, the butt resting on a rail.
I bent down to retrieve the shell, capturing the moment. As I slowly turned and arose to my full height facing Bob, I heard myself say "You'll never know, will you?"
Would I have shot my best friend over something as trivial as a dead blue racer snake? Even I don't know. But I will share with you this fact. Just a few minutes after this incident at Black Bridge, we all watched in awe as that blue racer, which we thought was dead, seemingly revived, slithered down from the fence over which it was draped, and slid rapidly away into the weeds along the railroad tracks.
Now, had my friend tossed a LIVE blue racer snake on me...well, who knows?