The bone-white sliver of moon was barely an inch above the line where the Earth kissed the nighttime sky when Bert Tucker awoke with a start. His breath was labored, his brow dappled with sweat the stale air could not blot away, and his cobalt blue eyes were wide with panic.
“What time is it? How long have I been out?” He muttered to himself in confusion. His eyes darted from the riverbank where he had stopped to rest, to the sky. He moaned. “Oh, God. The moon. It’s almost set.”
He quickly gathered his pitiful cache of belongings and got to his feet, almost tumbling into the rushing water in his haste. “There must be something,” he breathed. “A farm, or an inn. By all that’s holy, there has to be a place nearby. It’s almost dawn!”
Bert moved as fast as he was able, dragging his deformed left leg behind him through the brush alongside the river. He scanned the horizon for anything that could provide shelter from the approaching daylight, all the while cursing his weakness. If only he hadn’t stopped, hadn’t overindulged earlier in the evening, he would have had ample time to find a place to hide from the sun. But he hadn’t.
It had been so long since he had felt warm blood on his lips, that the wounded deer had seemed like manna from heaven. He had fallen upon the doe with a savagery born of desperation, drawn its life into his body, and left the carcass with its leg still trapped and broken within the hunter’s snare.
After finding the river and bathing, Bert basked in his good fortune by lying down in the soft grass to contemplate the stars. He had not intended to fall asleep. Now he would pay the price for his foolishness.
He swore aloud when he realized that the inky night sky had already faded to a soft gray. He ran his hands through his dishwater blonde hair and frantically limped in a circle, praying for guidance. His eyes fell on a deep depression carved into the steep bank on the far side of the river. Erosion had swept away the soil from beneath a huge river birch, and the majestic tree had fallen, leaving a cave-like gap at its roots.
Bert heaved himself into this crude sanctuary just as the heavens blushed a warm pink to welcome a new day. He tried very hard not to think about whether his uncontrollable shaking resulted from the chilly water or relief.