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  The Fifth Reindeer.                                                 Page 2 of 9

           It was in the middle of October, during one of the storms sending relentless sheets of snow, that a shudder went through the workshops, barns and homes at Santa's compound.  Courage had fallen very ill!  One day, when Santa went to the reindeer stalls to feed his beloved team, he noticed that Courage didn't come to her stall door.  Peering in, he saw her shivering in a corner, unable to lift her head.  Santa rushed into the stall and cradled Courage's head in his arms, speaking softly to her.  He tried to feed her some oats, without success.  Then he got a blanket and put it over her. He fed the rest of his team, but his face was anxious, and he hardly saw them as he stroked their noses.

          Three long days passed.  Santa turned over the toy operations to his chief elf, but without Santa's expert assistance, the toys were made more slowly.  Santa and Mrs. Claus took turns trying to nurse Courage back to health.  And while Santa possessed certain kinds of magic, these did not work against the fires of fever that burned inside his prized companion.

          Then, very late on the dark and cold third night of her illness, Courage died.

          For a very long while, Santa sat on the straw in Courage's stall, her head still in his arms.  Everyone left him alone.  At last, he stood, called his chief elf and Mrs. Claus, and said in a quiet but firm voice:

          "We will make no toys tomorrow.  We will do nothing else until we take Courage to her resting place."

***          

          And so, for the first time in more years than anyone could remember, the shops and workhouses of the compound were silent.  The great October storm dwindled to a gentle snow, and it was through this snow that the procession of reindeer and elves moved, led by Mrs. Claus and Santa pulling the bier on which Courage's body lay, heading toward a final secret resting place deep in the forest.

          Afterwards, when everyone had returned home, Santa sat down in his big chair and looked out the window at the falling snow for a very long time.  Mrs. Claus made him a cup of hot cocoa.  She quietly placed it on the table by his elbow; but just as she was tiptoeing out of the room, the old man stirred and said:

          "I must go off in search of another reindeer."

          She turned, surprised, and said, "But how will we finish the toys in time?  Already these past few days, things have slowed down without your direction and help.  And," she added very gently, "we couldn't work today."

          "But the other seven reindeer can't pull the sleigh themselves.  Courage was the strongest, and even with her help, there were times when we barely got off the ground.  It's no use.  If there's to be Christmas at all this year, I must find a replacement!"

          "And if the work falls behind, there won't be enough toys for all the children.  And this is a difficult year.  What will you do then?"

          Santa didn't answer.  But his face grew more anxious.  He got up, left the room, and returned a few minutes later.  Gone were his jolly red jacket, fur-trimmed red leggings, and black boots and belt.  Instead, he wore shabby old beggar's clothing.  "Tell the chief elf to keep them all working as fast as they can," he said:  "I'll be back as soon as possible."

          And out he stepped into the frigid night, leaving Mrs. Claus alone in a room with a cup full of cooling cocoa.

***

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