No one talked as they left the building. Each person was returning home with serious matters to settle.
“I’ll give you a ride in the wagon as far as your houses,” Herr Gustav told the men with him. “I have my gun. Hilda has hers. We should be safe the rest of the way home by ourselves.”
No one argued. They piled into the wagon and pulled the wool blankets around them. Hans Ulbricht lifted his lantern and took the horse’s reins to lead it from town. Gustav stopped at Kurt Hoffman’s farm first, then at each man’s home on the way. When he came to Hans Ulbricht’s small cottage, he said, “Gretel, Hans must leave now. You girls can lead the horses. And let’s hope the bear likes you as much as Kurt thinks she does. Maybe then she won’t attack us on our journey home.”
Gretel and Lily walked to the front of the wagon. Each girl took the horse’s reins in one hand and held a lantern high in the other. Slowly, they followed the trail to the Schlegel cottage. It was a long walk, and the path was difficult to see. Gretel tripped over a tree root and nearly fell. Lily’s arm grew tired, and she dragged the lantern on the ground until Herr Gustav yelled at her to raise it into the air.
“If you break the lantern, it will be strips off your hide,” he warned.
Frau Hilda chuckled and pulled the blankets from the wagon bed to the seat and layered herself and her husband under more warmth.
The cold air slithered under the girls’ sleeves. The snowy ground stole the feeling from their toes. By the time they reached the cottage, Gretel thought that she might never be warm again. Her nose and lungs burned from breathing the freezing air. Her very bones felt frozen.
Herr Gustav jumped from the wagon and said, “Help me take the horse to the barn. We’ll see if your bear has come for a visit while we were gone.”
While they helped remove the horse’s harness and settle him in his stall, Frau Hilda went into the house and called out, “No bear. All’s safe. Kurt Hoffman worried for nothing.”
Going to the goat stalls, Gustav pulled poor Rusty from the barn once more. “Let’s hope you’re right and the bear doesn’t want her.” He laughed. “Then no one can say that we didn’t put out our offering. It won’t be our fault if the bear doesn’t take it.”
Gretel stared at him in disbelief. “But you put Rusty out the night you shot her cub. Won’t that make the bear remember and get mad?”
Gustav gave her a sharp slap on the back of the head. “You’ve certainly found your mouth, haven’t you, missy? Maye it’s time you remember to keep your opinions to yourself.”
“That’s better. It’s time to remember your place in life. Now get in the house and go straight to your room. We’ve seen and heard enough from you lately.”
“Yes, sir.” Gretel grabbed Lily’s hand and hurried to the house.
Frau Hilda’s voice followed them up the stairs to their room. “Stay up there, insolent girls. And don’t think you’ll share any of the hot chocolate I’m making to get warm. I’ll leave the pan in the sink for you to wash in the morning.”
Lily wiped tears off her cheeks and sank onto her bed. “Now you’ve done it. We’ll be treated worse than before.”
“I’m sorry.” Gretel, too, fell onto the mattress and pulled the blanket tightly around her. She might never be warm again. There was even a cold lump swollen inside her heart. Fear? Shame? She couldn’t tell. “I’ve ruined everything.”
Lily didn’t try to hide her tears. They gushed, and her shoulders shook. “It’s not your fault. No one would care about us anyway.”
Gretel wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “I care about you, Lily. I’m sorry I made you sad.”
“You didn’t mean to. You’re always trying to take care of me. But maybe this time, you won’t be able to.”
That thought made a horrible knot tighten in Gretel’s stomach. “We’ll do the best we can.” And the two girls burrowed deep into their feather mattresses with their coats and heavy wool dresses on just to get warm. The night was too dark to watch for the bear. And soon, their eyes closed for sleep.