Bennett Caldwell was a poacher. He’d heard old man Grady was out of the hospital from a recent hernia surgery, which blew the man’s deer hunting this year. There was no way Grady would be able to drag a deer in his condition.

“It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Sam Sheldon told the group, who listened intently. Every day at five in the morning, the locals gathered and swilled coffee while they gossiped about the neighbors.

Bennet listened to the many stories that morning. Kathy Landon ran off with the Pequot boy. All about the Larsen’s divorce. Scarbo’s barn fire, the pothole in front of Klavon’s house, the new shed Toby Creed was getting, and Grady McFaddon’s emergency hernia surgery that put him out for this deer season. A fine morning to glean information.

Bennett loved being a part of the coffee clutch, even though he’d never been invited to sit with the group. He arrived every morning, taking the table nearby, pretending to read the newspaper while the next table talked.

At four a.m., opening day of deer season, Bennett drove to a dead-end road that abutted Grady McFadden’s property. He made sure he put the truck back into the woods where it couldn’t be seen from cars driving on the County Highway. Last night, fresh snow frosted all the branches and the bushes, hiding his pickup truck in a white cloud.

Bennett trudged into the woods, the old snot locker running like the sap in a tree during spring. Reaching his vantage point, he could barely make out the fire lane he was standing in. The sky showed hints of daylight coming as Bennett hunkered down. Who would have thought the opening day of deer season would be so cold? At least the snow made for good tracking should he shoot a deer.

Dawn. Just the hint of light. Bennet was excited, feeling prowess growing within him. No matter how old he was, Bennet came back to life in the fall. Something about gathering to survive the winter. The garden harvest, the meat harvest, wood cutting for the woodstove all made him feel like a pioneer, a self-sufficient man. He always claimed his health improved in the fall. Bennett stomped his feet, trying to warm himself when he heard the big buck.

“Oh Lord,” he whispered to himself. Picking up his Remington model 760 Gamemaster, he looked through the scope sensing movement. He squeezed the trigger. The recoil drove his shoulder back three inches. A thud and an exhale, but it wasn’t the sound of a deer.

Bennett started down the fire lane with a bad feeling in his gut and bile in his mouth. He knew he’d hit something.

Grady McFadden. Christ. Grady. What was he doing out here? Bennett leaned his gun on a log as the sun poked above the horizon, now seeing everything in living color.

“Grady, what are you doing out here?” The old man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. The hole in the front of his hunting suit was small but deadly; such a little hole with devastating consequences. Grady was a goner. Bennett cradled the man’s head in his lap.

“Oh my God.” Bennett rocked back and forth, watching life leave Grady’s eyes as the blood rose from Grady’s mouth in frothy bubbles. His vacant stare would be something Bennett would never forget.

He panicked and ran for the truck. He had to get out of here but stopped short. The authorities would be able to identify him from the rifling on the bullet. Bennett made it back to his truck, putting his gun away. He was trying to think his way out of this. He went back to where Grady lay when the thought occurred to him, find that bullet.

He rolled Grady over; no exit wound. The bullet would have lodged in his body somewhere, probably hit the spine. He could take it out.


He didn’t want to go to jail. He only had a few years left in his life, and spending it behind bars was not how he envisioned his reclining years. Right now, the charge was trespassing, poaching, and involuntary manslaughter. Manslaughter came with a prison sentence; his mind raced.

Without thinking, he unzipped Grady’s orange suit. He could see the fresh hernia scar. He reached his finger into the bullet hole and wiggled it around. He couldn’t feel anything. He found himself reaching for the hunting knife from its sheath; he did the unthinkable and expanded the wound to fit his hand inside Grady’s body. He felt the jagged edges of the bullet lodged in Grady’s spine. Bennett used the knife to pry it away from the bone, sighing relief when he felt it shift and was able to retrieve it. He dropped the bullet in his pocket, zipped Grady back up; the knife was bloody. Bennett grabbed a handful of leaves, drew the six-inch blade’s length, and cleaned it before putting it back in the sheath. Using snow, he washed his hands.

Good, he had retrieved the bullet and started to walk away. The snow! The snow would show his footprints! Bennett now saw what a fool he’d been. Boot marks around the body, his fingerprints on the zipper of the hunting suit. What an idiot; he was leaving DNA all over the place. Could he make up a story about he was poaching and found Grady like this?

He imagined himself telling the cops that he’d run back to his truck to get his phone to call for help but realized he’d left his cell phone at home. Grady, poor Grady was already dead; there was nothing he could do about it. He tried to stop the blood; that’s why his fingerprints were on the zipper.

What about footprints? If someone else had done what Bennet came up upon, there had to be another pair of boots out there. He cut a pine bough from the tree and started brushing his boot prints away from the body. He should have gone somewhere else to cut that branch. Bennett could see the white circle on the tree near him plain as day. How could he screw this up so badly?

Bennett realized he had another pair of boots in his truck. If he were to put those on, he could make a second set of tracks. He needed to have the prints come from another direction, like the killer came in from the public hunting grounds across the road.

The boots he had as spares in the truck were smaller and fit tight on his feet. He could feel a blister forming. They weren’t meant to walk a mile. He made it back to Grady, walked around with the new boots trying to wipe out his tracks from earlier. He approached the body and knelt like he was prying the bullet out of Grady’s stomach. Bennett used the cut branch, sweeping it around, walking back out to the road over fallen trees.

Grady needed to get to the police station. He stopped home, where he threw his phone on the coffee table, to back up the part where he’d forgotten the phone at home that morning. The story had to be believable.

Bennett pulled into the Sheriff’s Department. He ran up the steps in front, stopping at the front desk.

“I found Grady McFadden, shot in the woods!” he said out of breath. His heart was pounding in his chest. Bennett told about the deer he was hunting that he shot on public hunting grounds and followed across the road and into Grady McFadden’s property, finding Grady dead in a fire lane. He ran back to his truck. He must have left his cell at home, so he drove right to the police station. Grady was most definitely dead.

The officer took down everything Bennett said, followed his truck back to Grady’s with several other professionals. Bennett parked where he had this morning. The sun was high in the sky; the snow had melted quite a bit. He was thanking his lucky stars for the bright sunshine that wiped away most of the snow tracks.

Bennett had the sheriff’s officers follow him through the woods to the fire lane where they came upon Grady, laying stone-cold dead, in the middle of his woods. The deputy called everyone to halt! A photographer snapped pictures. He even took a picture of Bennett, what he was wearing, and his boot tracks.

Bennett was pretty wrung out by the time the police let him go. He nearly ran back to his truck. He might have gotten away with it. More people were coming in on the trail he had left. Evidence was being trampled.

He needed to find a place to ditch the boots. If Bennett became a suspect, the old boots couldn’t be anywhere near him. As he was driving down the road, he tossed them out the window one at a time, into the ditch where no one would find them. They were too small on him, anyway. He didn’t mourn their loss, feeling the blister on his little toe.

When he got home, Bennett poured himself a whiskey and water. Damn. He couldn’t believe what he had done today. He killed a man. It was an accident, but he still killed a man, and then covered it up with a good story and falsified the evidence.


When the deputy asked to take Bennett’s boots, he gave them to him. Did Bennett have any other boots? No, he didn’t. They asked him more questions. He gave them the same answers. They asked for his gun. He let them take it, remembering he had the bullet still in his hunting jacket. How stupid. As soon as the deputy pulled away from his house, he ran to the coat rifling through the pockets. No bullet. He checked and rechecked. Panicking. Where had that bullet gone? He searched again, finding a tiny hole in the bottom of the pocket that he remembered dropping the bullet into for safekeeping. Then a wave of cold sweat came over him when he thought about the shell casing. He’d forgotten to pick that up. Oh, he was screwed!

Bennett pulled his knife out. Blood was in every nook and crevice of the skinning knife’s wrapped leather handle. He put the blade back into the sheath and threw it into a bag that he carried out to the garbage can, where he buried it deep.

It was dark; he lay in bed. Bennett’s mind was still racing. Sleep was not going to come. It didn’t matter how much whiskey he’d drunk; he couldn’t make the visions go away. That vacant stare of Grady’s as he looked up into the sky with lifeless eyes. The angle of his hands, the position of his feet. Every little detail was cycling around in his brain. Where had he dropped the bullet? Did the cops find the casing? How could he have been that stupid? With the hole in his pocket, he could have lost that bullet next to the body, or while he was traipsing from the road, or between his pickup truck and the body. Where could it be? How was he going to find a tiny piece of metal in the middle of the woods? He had a metal detector, but he would look guilty as hell out there trying to find that bullet, which he could have lost anywhere. Was it in the truck? Hell, he could have dropped it in the police station for all he knew. But the casing, that was the smoking gun now, wasn’t it? His fingerprints would be all over that, and they would ask him why he shot on Grady’s property, and the whole thing was going to come undone.

Maybe the cops already knew. Perhaps it was why the cop came to his house and took the boots for prints. Why had he even covered up the accident? Oh, what a tangled web we weave, the childhood poem. He set himself up pretty good.

A man with a fresh hernia repair had no business deer hunting. Where was McFadden’s gun? Had he been deer hunting? What if another poacher had shot McFadden? Maybe Bennet never even hit him. The bullet could have proved him innocent. He couldn’t live with this whole thing. What did the cops know? When were they coming for him? He was living with his neck in a guillotine. He felt his heart pounding again; oh God, he was having a panic attack. He ran to the kitchen. Perhaps blowing in a small paper bag would help. Bennett tried breathing in and out. He couldn’t catch his breath.

His condition wasn’t a panic attack; Bennett was having a heart attack. He laughed manically. If he died right here, right now, none of this would matter. God knew it was an accident. He never purposely killed anyone. It was the cover-up he’d done after the accident when things turned for the worse.

He’d gotten this far in his life without screwing up too bad. He deserved to die like this in the middle of the night, alone. God, the pain was excruciating. The radiating to the jaw, the numbing of his arm. He was headed for the light when he realized it was red.

No. Heaven was a white light. Who called the ambulance? There was a pounding at his door.

“Police! Open up!” But Bennett had already passed out.


Bennett Caldwell lay in a hospital bed when his eyes fluttered open. Everything was white and sterile. Was this heaven? He felt the pain of the open-heart surgery. He survived a widowmaker, the doctor was telling him. The oxygen mask was blowing air into him, the IV dripping saline in a solution with a little happy juice. Here was his heart pillow, the doctor told him. When you cough, hold your staples in, you don’t want that heart falling out. Ha ha.

His next visitor was the Sheriff.

“Bennett, we know you did it.” That was what Sheriff McCall said. “We know you did it.” What did they know? He didn’t want to tip his hand. He closed his eyes falling back to sleep.

Bennett woke up again. He could see the morphine bag running next to the saline drip. He knew enough that the bag would dispense a little morphine into the drip if he pushed the button. At a certain point, he could no longer receive any more. He pulled himself up in the bed. The alarms went off. He was in intensive care.

“Mr. Caldwell, lay down!” The nurse was Grady’s daughter-in-law; she had to know. Did the cops tell her?

“I killed Grady. Please, I don’t want to go to jail. Let me die.” The nurse looked at him. She opened the morphine drip all the way.

“When you’re ready, just push the button.” He couldn’t believe his luck; Grady’s daughter-in-law was helping him with assisted suicide. He would not have to pay for his sins. He clicked the button over and over, but nothing happened. Bennett watched a nurse come through the door.

“Sorry, Mr. Caldwell, that’s all you get. You’ll have to wait another half-hour before the drip lets you have more painkiller. We wouldn’t want you to overdose now, would we?” It wasn’t Grady’s daughter-in-law; he had dreamed the whole thing, and now the damned hospital had saved him so they could put him in jail. With a new healthy heart, Bennett would spend a long time behind bars thinking about what he had done. He closed his eyes and recited the Lord’s Prayer.

“Forgive us our trespasses,” he prayed fervently. Bennett put his hand to his heart. He really meant it.