The girls stepped out of the barn and watched in amazement. Lights bobbed on the lane that led to the farmhouse. The tiny rays flitted up and down like fireflies in an everlasting night.
Gretel held her lantern high and took a step forward. The side of her head still hurt.
“Hello. Herr Gustav?” a voice called to her.
“No, it’s me, Gretel!” She recognized Hans Ulbricht’s voice.
“We’ve come to see Gustav,” Hans called, and as he came nearer, the girls saw that a group of men had come from town, armed with lanterns and guns. “No one wanted to come alone. Not with the terrible blackness and the animals hungry and mad.”
“So we decided to come as a team,” Kurt Hoffman said. “Safety in numbers. If the animals attacked, we’d at least be able to take out a lot of them before they got us.”
“The animals don’t hate us,” Gretel said. “They just want us to respect them.”
Kurt Hoffman bent low to study her in the lantern light. “What makes you think that?”
“I saw the bear the night you tied Rusty out as bait. After you killed her cub, I ran out to the field to set Rusty free. The bear was there. She was angry that you’d killed her cub, but she just watched me. And she was glad I cared about the goat.”
“Have you told Gustav this?” Kurt asked.
“No. Frau Hilda would be angry or laugh at me.”
The men shuffled their feet.
“She’s right about that,” one of them said.
Kurt Hoffman got on one knee and spoke softly. “Tell me, Gretel, why do you think the bear has come to Herr Gustav’s twice and killed all of his sheep?”
“Because the bear knows that Gustav owns the lumber business that’s ruining the forest. She knows that Herr Gustav is the one who won’t plant new trees when he cuts down big ones.”
“So is it a war?” Kurt asked.
“I think so.”
Hans Ulbricht gave Kurt a shove. “Come on, man. You’re listening to a little girl. We have business inside with the Schlegels.”
Kurt pushed himself to his feet. “Be careful, Gretel. It’s too dark for little girls to be outdoors.”
Gretel nodded and took Lily’s hand and hurried inside. They quickly hung their coats on the pegs by the door and put their shoes in the corner. It they tracked in mud, they’d be the ones to mop it up. Then they scurried upstairs to their attic bedroom, so they’d be out of sight when the men entered the house.
“What were you thinking?” Lily asked. “You always tell me that we’re lucky to have a roof over our heads and today, you talked back to Frau Hilda and now you told the men you snuck out to let Rusty loose and saw the bear. Are you trying to get us in trouble?”
Gretel chewed her bottom lip. “I should have kept quiet. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But Frau Hilda made me so angry when she talked about Mom and Dad that I couldn’t stop the words from coming out. And I’m sure the bear doesn’t hate us. The men are being stupid.”
“It doesn’t matter. Grownups are usually stupid,” Lily said. “It’s our job to stay out of their way.”
Gretel looked out the attic window at the pitch-dark sky. “I don’t know if we can stay out of their way this time.”
Lily grabbed her arm. “Don’t say that. That’s bad. That means trouble.”
Gretel nodded. “I think the trouble’s already here. The grownups have brought it. I don’t know if we can fix it or not.”
Lily sank down on the feather mattress. “If grownups need our help, we’re already doomed.”
“Let’s go listen at the top of the steps,” Gretel said. “Maybe they have an idea that will make things better.”
But the men had only come to summon the Schlegels.
“There’ll be another town meeting tonight,” Hans Ulbricht told them. “We’ll stay with you until it’s time to go to the meeting hall. You and Frau Hilda might not be safe without an armed guard.”
“You think the bear hates us, too, don’t you?” Herr Gustav asked.
“Yes,” Hans said simply. “Everyone does.”