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  The Fifth Reindeer.                                                 Page 6 of 9

           Thereafter, things seemed to improve.  Comet made steady progress; and, after only a few more days, he was flying in great swinging arcs across the sky.  The only difficulty that remained was his landing:  still favoring his hurt leg, he often tumbled head over heels into a snowdrift.

          Finally, Comet's skills had improved to the point where Santa decided no more lessons were required.  From this point forward, there would only be the daily drills in the practice pasture with the team, right up until Christmas Eve.

          However, if Santa felt any relief, it was short-lived:  on the way to the feed shed, he was confronted by a grim-faced chief elf.  "We are now hopelessly behind in our work," he said.  "Even with your help now, day and night, we couldn't possibly make all the toys that are required."  He followed Santa as the old man took the bags of oats into the reindeer barn:  "We might have had a chance, if you hadn't had to spend so much time teaching that one how to fly.  It's the first week in December!  And what kind of Christmas will it be now, without enough toys to go around?"  He gave the old man no rest, but moved from stall to stall with him, not worrying that the reindeer heard every word; after all, he was only voicing what everyone already knew:  "So what will we do, then?  Give toys to some of the children who deserve them, and refuse others who deserve them as much?  Some Christmas!"

          "What would you have me do, then?" Santa asked in exasperation:  "not fly at all?  Then no child would have Christmas toys!"

          "Maybe it would be better that way," the chief elf said bitterly, watching Santa empty oats into Comet's feed trough.  "Better to deny everyone than to give unfairly.  All I know is, we can't possibly make all the toys in time...not without outside help, which looks impossible at this stage!"

          Santa didn't answer:  he only chewed his knuckle as he watched his beloved animals eat.

***

           Later that night, his untouched cocoa at his elbow, Santa brooded on the situation, staring out the window.  It was a rare clear night; thousands of stars hung in the night sky, and a full moon was riding up from the trees.  "This is a terrible choice," he muttered, "and not all my magic can keep me from having to make it!  Do I set some children against others, or do I disappoint all the children?  What must I do?"

          Just then, the old man thought he saw a bright starry object flash across the heavens.  "If that was truly a shooting star," he whispered, "let me wish upon it that I make the right choice, or that -- or that, through some miracle, we received the help we need."  He stared out the window long after the flashing light had faded away.

          Santa wasn't the only in the compound who was spending a sleepless night.  In the reindeer barn, all the reindeer were asleep except one.  Comet too brooded over the words he'd heard that day, coupled with many similar words he'd heard over many previous days.  Finally, he could stand it no longer:  while the other reindeer slept, he pushed carefully against the door of his stall.  To his surprise, it opened!  Slowly, holding his breath, he slipped through the door and down the passageway.  Behind him, only Cupid stirred, sensing his passage.  "Where are you going?" she whispered sleepily, but he didn't answer.  Gaining the entrance, he pushed quietly outside, paused for a moment on the starswept white meadow, took a deep breath, and leaped into the night.

 

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