Bruin’s Orphans—Chapter 7
Gustav slapped people on the back, laughing and proclaiming, “Who’s with me? Who’s ready to make his own destiny? The old ways are dead. It’s time to quit living in fear and start making our marks on the world. We’ll kill all the bears and do as we please.”
Men, hungry for money, came to join him.
“Let’s lay claim to the forest,” Hans Ulbricht said. “Chop down every tree. Clear the woods and make farm fields. Drive every bear away.”
Franz Wilhelm sat silently with a group of men who listened to the others warily.
“Will the bear know who was for him and who was against him?” Josef Brecht, the blacksmith, asked. “Will he punish all of us for a few of our town’s sinners?”
Gretel strained her ears to hear the answer. When Franz Wilhelm spoke, he looked directly at her. “I’m afraid the innocent always pay for the sins of the foolish.”
A knot tightened in Gretel’s stomach. She was too young to say exactly what she was afraid of, but she knew that things were happening that were dangerous for all of them.
“Should we try to stop Herr Gustav then?” Josef asked. “Is it our fault for letting him do foolish things?”
Franz shook his white head. “These are times that test men’s souls. Let’s hope that the good outweighs the bad.” Again, he looked directly at Gretel.
Why? She wondered. She was only a child. Why should he pay such special attention to her? She blushed and looked away.
He hurried to say, “We must keep faith. No matter what happens, we must believe that good will always prevail over greed and selfishness.”
“Should we take any special precautions?” Josef asked.
“I’d keep all of my animals and myself indoors,” Franz said. “Other than that, all we can do is hope.”
A moment later, Herr Gustav grabbed Gretel by the arm and said, “Quit dawdling, girl. Get in the wagon. It’s time we drove home.”
Gretel and Lily hurried to the bed of the wagon and pressed themselves against its sides. Wind whipped past the houses and shops in cold, vicious blasts. The two girls clung to each other, shivering. Cold air crept past the cuffs of their heavy wool coats and seeped into their bones. Herr Gustav had heavy burlap bags in the back of the wagon for hauling grain, and Gretel pulled the bags around Lily and herself. The coarse fabric helped block the air, and soon their teeth stopped chattering.
Lily gazed at the cold, white moon. “It’s only a crescent now. It looks like someone took a big bite out of it.”
Gretel hugged herself, uneasy with her sister’s choice of words. The image bothered her. “The stars look brighter than usual,” she said, trying to distract herself from unhappy thoughts.
“Look.” Lily pointed. “Aren’t those the stars that make the bear?”
Gretel nodded. Before she could answer, an owl swooped overhead, darted to the right, and flapped to the woods on silent wings. Soon, another owl passed overhead.
“Two in one night!” Lily cried. “What luck!”
Gretel wasn’t so sure. A few steps more, and the horse jerked when a wolf howled nearby. He was joined by another wolf, then another. Soon, a chorus of howls rose to the bone-white moon.
The horse snorted and picked up its pace. Its hooves went clip-clop, clip-clop on the dirt trail that led to the farm house.
“The animals are restless,” Gustav said. “The bear must be moving nearby. Is my rifle loaded?”
“Loaded and ready,” Frau Hilda told him. “And I’m an excellent shot. If she shows herself, she’ll join her cub on the side of our barn.”
Herr Gustav laughed. “You can sleep under the cub. I’ll sleep under the mother.”
“I’ve always wanted a fur,” Frau Hilda said. “One I’ve killed myself will be even better.”
But the bear never showed herself to them. Instead, the Schlegels got to witness the bear’s mighty strength and its horrible wrath. When they neared the barn, Herr Gustav pulled on the reins and cried, “Whoa!”
“It did this on purpose!” Frau Hilda cried. “The bear waited for us to go to town; then it could do as it pleased.”
The barn doors were ripped from their frame and torn to splinters. The skin of the cub that was fastened to the side of the barn was gone. A shallow ditch in the snow showed where the mother had dragged it back to the woods. Not one sheep was left. Only blood. The bear had killed and dragged every one of them into the forest to eat at its leisure.
Gretel jumped from the wagon. “Rusty!”
“Stop, stupid girl. What if the bear’s still close by? She might kill you.”
But Gretel wasn’t listening. She ran into the barn and hurried to the stalls in the back. It was too dark to see, but she could hear the goats bleating their fear.
“It’s all right,” she said in a quiet voice. “The bear didn’t mean to hurt you. She spared you.” She remembered running to untie Rusty the night that Herr Gustav had used her for bait. She remembered the bear watching from the woods. It was as if the bear knew that Rusty was special to her, and that the farmer would gladly sacrifice her. Is that why the bear had purposely left the goats? And what did that mean? That the bear was mocking Herr Gustav? Or that the bear was kind to her for some unknown reason? Or both?
Herr Gustav joined her and turned in a slow circle in the barn. “The demon beast knows,” he said. “She knows what the town decided. And she’s declared war on us.”
Frau Hilda’s voice broke through his panic. “You credit the bear with too much intelligence. She came because you hung her cub’s skin on our barn. But even if you were right, this is a war that we can win. No bear is stronger than guns and bullets.”
Herr Gustav braced himself, took a deep breath, then said, “You’re right. If she wants war, she’s got one. And victory will be ours.”