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  The Fifth Reindeer.                                                 Page 3 of 9

          For many days, Santa traversed the northern lands, searching for a suitable replacement reindeer.  No doubt during that time, he brooded on what Mrs. Claus had said.  But he had to be careful to choose a replacement that was exactly right.  And so he visited many farms.  He had many doors shut in his face when the people within saw his shabby clothes:  after all, things were difficult enough as it was, without having to feed and shelter a beggar, even for one night.  And of those who did open their doors to him, and who did have reindeer, he sadly shook his head:  none he had seen were what he'd hoped to find.

          Finally, he stopped at a very tumbledown little house next to an equally tumbledown barn, and after knocking for a very long time at the front door (and worrying all the while that it would fall in), Santa was relieved to hear shuffling footsteps and the sound of a bolt shot back.  The door wrenched open, and suddenly Santa thought he was looking at himself in a mirror:  the old man facing him looked and was dressed as shabbily as was he.

          "What may I do for you?" the old farmer asked.

          "I'm looking for a reindeer to replace the one from my team," said Santa.

          The old farmer looked at him for a bit, then said, "I have only three reindeer.  Two of them I need for my plow; but I could spare the third.  But come in first, and share a cup of broth with me, and then we'll go to the barn."

          After the hot broth, the two men went to the falling-in barn.  Inside, the farmer stopped to pat the noses of two of the reindeer, who were placidly chewing on bits of hay, before leading Santa to a stall at the far end of the barn.  From that stall came the sound of hooves hammering the stall sides.

          The first glimpse Santa had of what would become the newest member of his team was that of an eye wildly staring out from the darkness of the stall; then it whirled away, and the kicking resumed.

          After the old farmer spoke to the great beast for a while, the drumming stopped, and a large antlered head thrust itself through the stall door.  The farmer grabbed a handful of oats from a feedbag hanging on the back wall and offered it to the great mouth; but it was refused.

          "You see, I can do nothing with this one," the farmer sighed.  "I found him injured under a fallen log:  the largest reindeer I'd ever seen.  When I'd freed him, the only reason he didn't spring up and run away was because his leg was hurt.  So I struggled back here with him, and here he's been ever since.  He will not take the food from my hand, as you see:  I have to spill the oats on the floor and find them gone when I come back later.  I can't take him out except on a very strong lead, which he fights.  I don't know why I keep him.  I suppose sooner or later he'll kick apart this old barn and take the other two reindeer with him when he leaves..."

          The farmer's voice trailed off, because by this time it was clear that Santa was no longer listening.  His eyes fixed on the giant beast, he said, "I'll take this one."  Reaching into the fold of his cloak, he pulled out a small leather bag.  "I have only a little gold," he said.

          "Gold is in the land, not in somebody's pocket," the farmer said.  "I'll take one gold piece to use in the spring for a new harness and seed.  When you come in to better weather, you may pay me what you think he's worth."

          And so it was done.  Santa gave the farmer a single gold piece, and the farmer handed the heavy reins to Santa, undid the latch on the stall door, and then opened the door and stepped way back, fully expecting the great beast to kick and snort its way out of the barn.  But whether it was the magic in Santa's voice, or the gentleness in his touch, or some other unexplained reason, the giant reindeer calmed down and allowed itself to be led outside.

          As Santa and the farmer were saying goodbye, the clouds parted, and a shooting star passed through the sky and disappeared.  "I take that as a sign," Santa said to the farmer.  Turning to the reindeer, he added:

                              "On the sign of the shooting star I name you

                                                                Comet.

                              As the newest member of my team, may you
                              learn to fly with the wind and as high as
                              the stars, and may you be granted courage
                              equal to the beloved whom you will replace."

The animal snorted and pawed the earth, its hot breath steaming in the night air.  Then, remembering the farmer's kindness, Santa said to the old man:

                              "Bless this house, this barn, and these lands;
                              and peace and prosperity reign over the lands
                              and those who dwell here."

Then he left, and man and beast disappeared into the night, leaving the farmer to wonder what magic had really visited him that evening.

***

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