Gretel tiptoed from her bed to kneel at the top of the steps. Soon, pulling a blanket tightly around herself, Lily came to join her. The girls sat silently, listening. The room below them was crowded with men.
“If the bear’s going to single us out from everyone else in the village,“ Herr Gustav said, “then we’re the ones who’ll have to stop her.”
“It already got five of your sheep,” Otto Gerhard said. Otto walked to the cottage every morning to ride into the woods in Gustav’s wagon. Otto was over six feet tall with broad shoulders and long, blond hair. “Ae you sure you want to give it one of your goats, too?”
Gustav shrugged. “She’s old and doesn’t give as much milk as she used to. It’s a sacrifice, but worth it.”
Gretel’s eyes filled with tears. The oldest goat in the barn was one of her favorites. She’d thought the animal was safe, since the farmer had no use for it besides milk. Old hens were killed and boiled until the meat fell off their bones for soup. Ducks were killed for meat and feathers. But a goat?
“What have they done to Rusty?” Lily whispered.
The girls had nicknamed the goat for her rust-colored fur. Rusty came to them every morning and rubbed her head against their legs until they petted her and scratched behind her ears. She was gentle and affectionate.
Gretel shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“No bear can resist an easy kill,” Hans Ulbricht said. Hans was no taller than Herr Gustav, with dark hair and a thick mustache. He was known as the fastest man with a saw on the crew. He could shimmy up trees and top them better than anyone.
“Is the goat where the bear will smell it?” asked Frau Hilda. As usual, sacrificing the goat was her idea.
“It’s staked in the center of the pasture,” Gustav told her. “And the wind’s blowing north, toward the woods, tonight.”
The girls looked at each other. Rusty was surely doomed.
“Then what are you waiting for?” Frau Hilda asked. “Get your guns and lie in wait for it.”
Gretel took a quick breath. Of course. It was a trap. When the bear came for the goat, the men would shoot the forest’s guardian.
“Let’s be off then,” Gustav ordered. “We’ll form a circle and lie on the ground behind some of the bigger rocks. Just make sure that none of you are downwind of the bear. We don’t want to ruin her surprise.”
Gretel and Lily waited until they heard the men’s feet stomp from the house. They sat still even longer, waiting for Frau Hilda to leave the front room, too, but she called up to them.
“Come, girls. I know you’re awake. You can help me bake a victory surprise. We’ll have a cake waiting for Herr Gustav when he returns with a dead bear.”
The girls quickly pulled their dresses over their heads and went downstairs to help Frau Hilda. She hummed as she lit the wood under the oven and measured flour into a bowl. Her lips curled into a wicked smile as she poured honey into the flour to sweeten it. “Maybe with the bear gone, we’ll find more honey, too,” she said.
A lump stuck in Gretel’s throat. She could hardly stand the idea of the big, brown bear being killed. And she forced herself not to think of Rusty tied to a stake, afraid and bleating in the middle of a field.
“Oh, cheer up, girl. Don’t look so gloomy. Life is hard. It’s us or the bear, and no animal is going to ruin our lumber business.” Frau Hilda pushed the bowl to Gretel and said, “Start stirring.”
Gretel bit her bottom lip and did as she was told.