Santa and the reindeer had been delivering presents all night. They had crossed several timezones, flown in and out of storms and were growing quite weary by the minute. As the sleigh became lighter, all seemed to be going as planned. Visions of warm fires, dinner and soft beds flickered through Santa's and the reindeer's thoughts.
All of a sudden, Rudolph let out a warning 'SLOW! CAREFUL', he barked to the others, who obeyed immediately. Santa trusted Rudolph's judgement. The other reindeer continued quietly and slowly, following Rudolph's example.
'Santa, the sleigh doesn't feel right, we should check it on the ground', whispered Rudolph.
Santa knew Rudolph was right that it is better to be cautious than speedy. Blitzen thought Rudolph was being a bit too cautious, but he followed orders as he should. Comet began to shiver. Cupid nudged Comet to keep going.
Santa asked 'What's the matter with Comet?' as they neared a clearing that was wide enough to land the sleigh.
Comet was embarassed at being caught out and couldn't find the right words. Rudolph replied instead. 'Santa, we are near Desolation Creek. There have been stories about a hermit that have been circulating, recently.'
'Oh, that's nothing to get your fur ruffled over, Comet. There is nothing to be afraid of with all of us here too. Besides, we won't be long.' said Santa in his usual cheery manner, even though he was concerned that they wouldn't make the final leg of their journey in time.
The sleigh landed with a thump. Santa lit a small fire so they could stay warm and see a bit better. A light snow was falling. The reindeer shivered a little. Santa threw blankets over the reindeer's backs so they wouldn't catch a chill. It just wouldn't do to have them work so hard and then feel bad for it.
Santa crawled under the sleigh and began to go over the various parts. The runners were clean and sharp, so that wasn't it. The ropes were solid and the knots were tight. The cogs were all in working order, except for the one that was missing. That was it. Rudolph could feel that the main steering cog was not working right and may have fallen out in the thump of the landing. Santa slid out from under the sleigh and walked around. There in the snow he found a bit of the cog. It had broken. That had to be replaced before they went anywhere.
The reindeer whinnied. 'Santa' whispered Rudolph, with a bit of urgency. 'We are not alone, here.'
Santa looked around, very slowly. At first, all he could see was snow. Then, he saw a snowman in the shadows. There was no building in sight. Santa had heard the rumours before of a mean hermit in this area. Since there were no children near these woods, this was really an unknown forest to Santa. He went to check on the reindeer.
'It's the main steering cog, it's broken and needs replacing.' Santa told the reindeer.
The reindeer shifted a bit. Santa unhitched the reindeer so they could gather closer to the fire. The snow was getting heavier. The trees offered some shelter from the wind. An owl flew up to the group around the fire and hooted a greeting.
Santa returned the owl's greeting. 'Hello, friend.'
The owl watched intently for a few moments and settled down to preen. Santa looked through his tools, in order to find something that might solve their predicament. Turning to the owl, again, Santa asked 'Would you be so kind as to pass a message to the North Pole, for me?'
The owl nodded with a hearty 'To Who, To Who?'
Santa scribbled a note and gave it to the owl. The owl took flight and disappeared into the dark. Blitzen paced around the ring of the other reindeer and the fire.
Santa turned to the sleigh and couldn't believe his eyes, the snowman seemed nearer than before. That just couldn't be right. Maybe he was more tired than he had admitted to himself. No, no, the snowman had been over by the creek and now it was near the tree stump, instead. Santa didn't want to alarm the reindeer, so he very quietly looked around for some wood from which to carve a new cog. As he looked towards the reindeer, he made eye contact with Blitzen. The expression in Blitzen's eyes clearly said 'I know there is something there'.
Within an hour, Mrs Claus was holding the message that had been entrusted to the owl. She had her suspicions about how an owl could have made it that far, that fast, but it was definitely her husband's handwriting. She summoned the elves and read the note to them.
'It says: Near Desolation Creek. Main steering cog is broken. Send help to deliver the last round of toys and to get the sleigh home', read Mrs Claus to the elves.
The elves scurried back to the workshop and the stables. A replacement cog was made of iron and set to cool in a bucket of water. While the elves were discussing what to do next, Santa was hundreds of miles away, carving a wooden cog that would hopefully get them out of the woods and to a more hospitable place.
The owl returned and landed on a nearby branch. Santa jumped. He was not expecting the owl to return that soon, because it was such a long journey. Something was not as it seemed. A bunny hopped into the ring by the fire and curled up to stay warm. The owl hooted softly.
Santa didn't know what to make of the strange happenings. So, he continued to carve. Blitzen snorted. Santa looked up to meet Blitzen's gaze. The snowman had moved again.
A moose slowly walked into the ring by the fire, carrying stalks of hay that he dropped by the reindeer. Following the moose was a chipmunk who dropped some berries next to the hay.
'Well, what have we here?' chuckled Santa. 'It looks like we have some friends.'
The reindeer began to nibble the hay and berries. Before they knew it other animals had joined the dinner party sharing bits of their winter stores of seeds, nuts, berries and vegetables with the reindeer and each other.
Santa walked over to the snowman and removed his own scarf to wrap it around the snowman's neck, instead. The animals of the wood gasped. The snowman shivered. The owl gave another 'To Who?' of approval.
The owl shimmered into the shape of a wood elf. The snowman dissolved into the shape of an unkempt man, otherwise known as the hermit of Desolation Creek. The man looked at the group near the fire. He could feel his heart warming as he asked Santa what had happened.
The wood elf explained, 'You avoided people. You were mean to animals. You were so mean that you drove everyone away from this side of the woods. When you were mean to me, I turned you into a man of snow because of how cold your heart was already. All you had to do to break the spell was to feel compassion for another living thing.'
The hermit then told the others how he had a family and pets. But things happened and he lost everything, bit by bit. From then on, he wanted nothing to do with any living thing because it would just mean more pain.
Santa took the hermit by the arm and embraced the lonely man. Santa told him 'You cannot live your life isolated and be happy. The gifts of love and joy are multiplied when you share them.'
'We need to leave, now, or we will miss a lot of deadlines.' said Santa as he moved to slide under the sleigh to make repairs. The hermit nodded. The others watched hopeful that Santa could get the sleigh fixed.
Santa placed the carved wooden cog on the sleigh and hitched the reindeer in their places. The reindeer gathered their strength and gave a good running start and the sleigh was air born.
The wood elf shimmered back into the shape of an owl to deliver the message that Santa was on the move. The hermit and other animals spent the rest of Christmas Eve night and Christmas day celebrating by the fire that Santa had lit.
On his way home after the last toy delivery, Santa once again encountered the now familiar owl. The owl shimmered into an elf once more and handed the iron cog to Santa. 'This is for you, have a safe journey home, Santa.'
'Thank you very much', said Santa with a loud laugh as he once again slid under the sleigh.