We woke to the campfire’s light shrinking and Virgil’s sleeping bag empty. His pack still aside the white tartan blanket he used for a pillow. The open tin of corn he set to warm by the fire steamed in the darkening evergrey.
My boy and I sat rigid against the forest’s silence until first light before we could begin the search. I held him close under our tarp against the fresh snowfall. It masked the path he trod on his way to piss. Soon enough we discovered signs of his footfall, and the outline of the other two who marched him away. We sloughed our way up to our knees in drifts on the wayward route they trod to lose us in the crisscross of birch.
It was my boy who saw it first. “What’s that?” he hushed, his breath a cloud.
“A warning we should come no further,” I spoke into my chest.
Some way up a bracken-streaked bank we saw the omen of foreboding hung loose on a fencepost dug into the hilltop. Dried sprigs of wicker curled out in circular bonds from its eyeholes. Thorny bands of desiccated brambles razzed us out a skull scraped of all flesh.
“Sons of bitches, we can’t leave Virgil down there.” My son reached the top of the bank before I could drag him to his idiot knees.
“Ain’t no use,” I whispered, holding the boy by the hood. My hunting knife scraped the eye-tooth malocclusion on the skull’s left. “We already gone and found him.”