Christmas in the mountains of north Alabama was a special time for me and my buddies, Punky Kelly and Chipmunk Green. School was out, there was plenty of time to put out rabbit box traps, and there was the Christmas pageant at our little rural church, which meant food and presents.

 Setting rabbit box traps was a high priority for us as we thought of ourselves as being mountain men. The excitement was that we never knew what our trap line would produce, one year it was mostly opossums the next a rabbit or two.

This particular Christmas season we each had built one new rabbit box trap. Our trap line started on the creek behind my house where we set one box on an animal trail next to the creek. Then we crossed the pasture to a fencerow near Punkys house where a second box was carefully set. The third box was set a short distance away, next to a brush pile behind Chipmunk’s dad’s barn.

This year we were using a special bait that Chipmunk had compounded that consisted of carrots, vanilla extract, and some fishing worms ground up into a smelly paste. Chipmunk’s thinking was that the carrots would attract rabbits, the vanilla extract would attract possums, and the fishing worms would pull in insect eating animals. We believed him.

The bitter cold afternoon on the day the Christmas pageant was to be held that night, Punky and Chipmunk arrived at my house for us to make the run on our trap line. Walking across the frozen pasture behind my house, we were filled with excitement and anticipation. What would we find in our new traps?

In our mind, our tattered overalls were buckskins; we imagined our BB guns were flintlock rifles. We were careful to travel through gullies and ditches to evade hostile Indians. We were on our way to run our beaver traps.

Reaching the first rabbit box we were somewhat disappointed that the door was still open. We checked the bait, even frozen, it still smelled.

Not to be discouraged, we made our way across the near frozen creek and ran to the four-strand barbed-wire fence where the second trap was set. Adrenaline rushing, we looked down at the trap. The door was down! Three mountain men had made their first catch of the season.

Hearing a scratching sound from within the box, we couldn’t resist raising the door, just enough to take a peek at our catch. With our red, runny noses almost touching, we had our heads right down at the fallen trap door as Punky eased the door up just enough for us to see what kind of critter we had caught. The door couldn’t have been raised more than an inch or two when, with a hair-raising scream, a black animal bowled us over as it made a fast get-a-way.

“A black panther!” Chipmunk screamed as we watched our trophy race across the pasture. Punky and I, with hearts racing, recognized the neighbor’s dairy barn cat as he ran for home.

After a good laugh, we re-baited and set the trap.

It was getting close to time to go to the church pageant, where Chipmunk was to be one of the three wise men in a play, when we came to our third trap. We were filled with excitement when we saw the door down on this trap. Scratching from the inside the box 
assured us of success. After congratulations were extended all around, we decided to learn from our mistakes of the past. We were not going to let this trophy escape.

Chipmunk had a plan. He had his dad’s velvet house coat hanging in their garage, just a short distance from the trap, ready to take to the church to wear as his wise man’s robe in the play. He would get the robe and we would cover the trap to keep the animal inside calm and take the trap to the barn to release our trophy into a chicken coop where we could get a good look. A great plan we agreed.

Quickly Chipmunk made the trip to the garage and back with his dad’s favorite, and only, robe in hand. We loosely wrapped up the box trap, with much scratching coming from inside, and started for the barn. Chipmunk was carrying the box and Punky and I were dancing around him trying to guess what trophy we had captured.

All was going well until Chipmunk took one of his hands off the trap to reach into his pocket for a cookie he had gotten when he got the robe. The box felled to the ground and we saw movement under the robe. At the same moment the recognized odor of a skunk filled the air. Mountainmen ran in all directions.

There is still talk to this day about the wise man, that Christmas long ago, who emptied the church when he made his appearance.