The men went to the barn to hook the horse to the wagon. When the horse was harnessed and the wagon ready, they piled into it and drove to the house to get Frau Hilda.
“What about the girls? You can’t leave them here,” Kurt Hoffman insisted. “Not in the dark. It’s not safe.”
“They have the same lanterns for light that we do,” Frau Hilda argued.
“But what could they do if the animals attacked again? What if the bear tried to come into your house this time instead of the barn?”
Frau Hilda cast a cold glance at Gretel. “We’d be rid of two ingrates.”
“What would the townspeople say?” Kurt demanded.
“All right, all right, we’ll take the girls if you shut up about it,” Hilda said. “Enough townspeople are mad at us already. I don’t want to make matters worse.”
So Frau Hilda sat on the front seat of the wagon with her husband, and the girls piled in the back with the men. This time, Herr Gustav brought heavy blankets for everyone.
Herr Gustav had attached two lanterns to the front of the wagon, but the glow of light barely lit the trail that led to town. The trees at the edge of the frozen path were swallowed in an onyx void. Not one familiar bush or curve of the road was visible. The horse shook its head and whinnied. Herr Gustav leaned forward, straining his eyes, but it was impossible. He couldn’t see far enough ahead to steer the wagon.
Hans Ulbricht leapt from the wagon bed to the ground, grabbed a lantern, and went to the horse. “I’ll lead us into town,” he said. He pulled on the horse’s reins, holding his lantern high in order to see.
Everyone in the wagon huddled close, listening. The night was too still. Not one wisp of wind blew. Not one branch rattled. No animals scurried.
When they finally reached town and made their way to the meeting hall, everyone gave a sigh of relief. Once inside, sitting beside Frau Hilda in the front pew, Gretel felt her shoulders relax. She realized that she’d been tense, ready to leap and run, for the entire trip. Lily slid her hand into her sister’s, and Gretel knew that she felt the same way.
Rudolf Kleist rose to his feet first. “Herr Gustav has to fix this. I’ll lose everything if the sun doesn’t show itself soon. He got us into this trouble, he can get us out.”
Gustav leapt to his feet. “And what exactly should I do? I tried to kill the bear. I couldn’t find it. I sure can’t find it in the dark.”
Doctor Theobold took the floor. “Perhaps, for a change, you might listen to reason.”
“And I suppose that means you think you have all the answers?” Gustav demanded.
“No, but our town doesn’t have a wise man to ignore him,” Theobold said. “He’s given you his opinion over and over again. You chose to ignore it. Look where it’s gotten you. And us.”
Gustav sneered. “There were plenty who agreed me with at the last meeting.”
“That was then. This is now.” Rudolf Kleist shrugged. “We could at least try what Franz Wilhelm wants.”
Hans Ulbricht rose. “You didn’t agree with Franz before, Rudolf. You wanted revenge on the bear, too.”
“That’s when I thought lumbermen knew how to hunt. Karl and Martin shot at dried leaves and twigs. They didn’t use any skill at all.”
“Then why didn’t you? You never fired your gun,” Hans said.
“I was looking for tracks, for signs of the bear. By the time Karl and Martin quit blasting, the bear would have to be stupid to show itself.”
“It showed itself,” Hans said. “It chased me up a tree and charged Kurt when he came to rescue me.”
Rudolf frowned at Kurt. “The bear charged you, and you live?”
“Thanks to a lock of Gretel’s hair.” Kurt touched his chest. “I held it up like a talisman. The bear sniffed it and spared me.”
“Is this true?” Franz Wilhelm asked, pushing himself to his feet unsteadily and leaning on his cane.
“Yes,” Kurt told him.
Franz turned his watery blue eyes on Gretel. “Why did you give Kurt the lock of hair?”
Gretel swallowed hard and looked down at her hands.
“Come, come, girl. You’re not in trouble. You can answer me.”
Gretel’s voice sounded small and timid when she answered. “Kurt helped me with my chores. I wanted to help him.”
“And why did you think your hair would help him?” Franz asked.
“The bear could have hurt me and didn’t. I think she likes me,” Gretel said.
“Very good, girl. That, indeed, might be our town’s salvation.”
“Why is that?” asked Doctor Theobold.
“It means the bear distinguishes between the people who respect the forest and nature from those who only plunder it for themselves.”
“Then there’s hope?” asked Josef Brecht, the blacksmith who stood beside Franz to support him.
“I think we have every reason to hope,” said Franz.
“Enough talk. What should we do?” Rudolf Kleist snapped.
Franz Wilhelm frowned, deep in thought. “We must make peace with the bear. We’ve angered her. We must make amends. The animals have suffered with no sunlight, too. We must make it clear that every man and woman of the village will respect them and pay homage from now on.”
“How do we do that?” asked Rudolf.
“Tonight, every farmer must tie out one offering for the animals of the forest.”
Gretel’s heart sank. She loved the farm animals as much as she loved the wild ones.
“That’s easy for you to say,” Rudolf argued. “You’re too old to keep many animals. All you’ll lose is a chicken or goat. I’ve already given the bear my workhorse. That should be enough.”
“Then spend the rest of your days in darkness or leave this village to try to find sunlight,’ Josef Brecht said.
“And what are you going to give the bear?” asked Gustav. “You’re a blacksmith. You don’t own any livestock.”
“I have two horses,” Josef said. “To pull my wagon. I’ll give her one of those.”
“And the rest of the townspeople?” Gustav asked.
The grocer whose shop was a short distance away stood. “We’ll ALL put something out for the bear. None of us would want you to be more burdened than the rest of us.”
Frau Hilda sniffed. “We’re already more burdened. The bear took every one of our sheep.”
They were about to argue more when Frau Gerhard rose from her pew. The room immediately grew silent.
“The bear took my son,” said Otto’s mother. “He went with the men on the hunt and lost his life. I blame no one. Not the men. Not the bear. And I’ll gladly give her one of my cows. We started this. We must atone for it.”
“Have you any argument for that?” Franz asked Rudolf and Gustav.
“Good, then it’s decided. When we leave this hall, we’ll each go home and tie an offering outside our homes for the bear and the animals she protects.”