They were gone.
Samuel, the milkman, noticed something off. The Barkers, religious in their dairy habits, had left neither their empty bottles nor their list for him. When he rapped on the backdoor, the scullery maid failed to answer, and so it was that he retreated from the Barkers’ large home and came hellbent for election to see me.
I sent Samuel back along his route, along with orders to place a call to members of The Cross Sentinel newspaper and the police at the first house with a phone.
As for myself, I strapped on my Colts, saddled one of my horses, and made for the Barkers’ home up on Washington Street.
The ride didn’t take long, and I was glad to see some of the journalists working with the police to keep a few interested townsfolk away. I tethered the horse to the hitching post at street-side and then went ‘round the back. The tracks of Samuel’s hobnailed boots were clear to see in the snow.
They were the only tracks in the snow, and they stopped at the top of the stairs. I could see where he stood, waited, and then kicked some snow aside in his haste to leave.
Taking hold of the doorknob, I let myself into the house.
Cold, stale air greeted me, as did the odor of cheap pipe tobacco.
In the parlor, I found the Christmas tree and opened gifts beneath it. A quick search of the rest of the home revealed it to be empty, and so I returned to the parlor. There’d not been a Father Christmas incident since ’96, and I hoped it would stay that way.
Well, I was wrong to hope.
On a small toy piano, I saw a note, which I collected and stepped back to read.
In fine, elegant script was a short poem.
“The Mother and Father,
And the Irish maid, too,
Have come to feed the fire,
With skin, bone, and sinew.
The Children, six in all,
Will fill empty shelves
As they work away their years
As Santa’s new elves.”
I read the note several times, though it offered nothing else. Finally, I tucked it away into my breast pocket and went out to speak with the journalists and the police.
There was nothing more I could do.