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  The Fifth Reindeer.                                                 Page 8 of 9

           In the predawn light, the workshops, barns and homes at Santa's compound were in an uproar.  Comet had disappeared!  The chief elf bellowed his rage.  The reindeer and other elves talked furiously among themselves.  Even Mrs. Claus shook her head.  After all this time, and despite all of the effort Santa had put forth, to betray him so!  Surely now, Christmas was ruined!  Best that that horrible creature never set hoof on these grounds again!

          This and many more angry things did they all say -- all except Santa and Cupid.  Santa stood to one side, deep in disturbed thought, watching without really seeing the full moon as it touched the hills on the horizon.  Had he misjudged this great beast after all?  Was it really the wayward creature he had seen at first?

          Cupid approached the great old man and said, "I can't believe that he would just leave.  He must be trying to do something for us --" her voice trembled, betraying her troubled spirit "--only, I --wish we could know what it is.  He must be out there, somewhere, trying to do something to help us!"  And she turned her eyes from the moon that had sunk halfway behind the hills and looked up to the far reaches of the night sky.

          Following her gaze, Santa too looked upward.  Then, whether through instinct or some even subtler sense, the rest of them did the same.  And what they then saw was simply incredible:  tiny points of light, hundreds and hundreds of them, growing brighter and larger, streaming towards the earth -- an incredible, dazzling shower of stars, lighting up field and meadow, hill and valley with a brightness as of day.  And in the midst of the shower, wheeling and tumbling in free fall, the last of his strength leaving him, Comet, greatest of fliers, plunged to the earth, landing in a crash and shower of snow, while all around him landed the stars become people, as the last light of the moon winked out beyond the hills.

          From under the snow a sobbing came, as the great beast, utterly spent, struggled to regain his breath.  Cupid leaped forward, brushing snow off him with her nose, her soft breath warming him.

          At last, he was able to stand, though unsteadily.  Then he limped forward, his leg throbbing.  He looked first at the hundreds of Star People, next at Santa.  Then he opened his mouth carefully, unsure of himself, and haltingly, hoarsely and shyly he stuttered, "They're -- for you.  They will -- help -- make -- the toys."

          Then everyone cheered, and the chief elf jumped forward and threw his arms around Comet's neck.  Santa laughed and laughed.  There was great joy, celebration, and dancing, and Mrs. Claus made more hot cocoa than the thought she could make:  Christmas was saved!

***

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