The town hall was crowded when Herr Gustav tied the horse to a tree and helped Frau Hilda from the wagon. The girls followed them into the meeting room.
Franz Wilhelm slowly made his way to the front of the room, leaning on his cane. “The animals have refused our offerings,” he said.
Herr Gustav jumped to his feet. “Did anyone else have a long funnel of wind attack their property?”
The room grew silent.
“Your property was punished again?” Franz Wilhelm asked.
“The wind tore up all of Frau Hilda’s pear and cherry trees and ruined the fences on both sides of the orchard,” Gustav said.
Franz Wilhelm puckered his lips in thought. “And Frau Hilda is very proud of her orchard, is she not?”
“Then the bear meant to punish her particularly this time. Did the darkness leave before or after the wind hit your farm?”
“After,” Herr Gustav said.
“Did the bear take your offering?”
“No.” Herr Gustav looked down at his feet, avoiding Franz Wilhelm’s gaze. “I put the goat out in the field, and the bear chewed through its ropes and slept with it during the night to keep it warm. It gave it to Gretel when she went to the barn in the morning.”
“It singled out Gretel once more.” Franz Wilhelm looked for her in the crowded pews and saw her. Then he frowned at Gustav. “Wasn’t this the same goat the bear spared before?”
Herr Gustav shuffled his feet. “Yes.”
“So you insulted the bear instead of showing it respect?”
“Definitely.” The old man shook his head. “And in return, the bear sent a wind funnel to your farm.”
Franz cocked his head to one side, deep in thought. The room stayed silent, waiting. Finally, he said, “But instead of taking your barn. . .”
“That would have hurt Rusty,” Gretel called from her seat.
“Aah, yes, I believe you’re right.” Franz studied Gretel. “And the bear didn’t hurt the house.”
“We live there,” Gretel offered.
“Yes, I believe that matters a great deal to our Bruin.”
“Bruin?” Gustav asked.
“The bear. Every guardian receives that name.”
Frau Hilda rose. “Why did the bear punish me this time?”
“The bear is wise. He’s no doubt discovered that your husband carries out your wishes.”
“Gustav doesn’t sit around and feel sorry for himself,” Frau Hilda said. “He takes what he wants.”
Franz Wilhelm cleared his throat. “No, Gustav takes what YOU want, I’d guess. Whose idea was it for him to start the lumber business?”
“We both wanted to be wealthier. We both wanted more.”
“But who thought of cutting trees AND working the farm?”
Frau Hilda crossed her arms in front of her. “I simply mentioned that there was a lumberyard downstream from our village that would pay well for any trees that our town sent to the mill.”
“When Gustav first started cutting trees, he worked alone and planted a seedling for each tree he cut, did he not?” Franz Wilhelm asked.
Frau Hilda made no comment.
“Who encouraged Gustav to hire more men, to cut more trees, and not to replace them?”
“I discuss my husband’s work with him. What wife doesn’t?”
Franz Wilhelm nodded. “And after you discussed the lumber business with Gustav, is that when he changed the way he operated?”
“So what if I did?” Gustav demanded. “I didn’t have to agree with my wife.”
“No, you didn’t. And the bear blames you as much as she blames Frau Hilda. But she’s decided you both should be punished. Not just one of you.”
“What about the town?” Rudolf Kleist asked. “Has the bear forgiven us?”
“Partially.” Franz motioned to the dim light outside. “We have a little sunshine.”
“It’s not our fault Gustav angered her again,” Rudolf complained. “We tried to please her with offerings. What are we to do now?”
“Give her the girls,” Frau Hilda said.
“What?” Franz Wilhelm turned to stare.
“The bear has a fondness for the girls. We’ve tried everything else.” Frau Hilda looked at Gretel with hatred. “The bear knows the girls belong to us and they help us on the farm. She’ll know what a sacrifice it is for us to give them to her.”
“That’s a brilliant idea!” Gustav cried.
Lily leaned into Gretel, and Gretel wrapped an arm around her.
“I hardly think if the bear spared your goat that she’ll want the girls,” Franz said.
“Maybe the goat wasn’t worthy enough,” Rudolf Kleist argued. “But humans! Two little girls. What more could the village offer?”
“Give her the girls!” Hans Ulbricht called. “The bear likes Gretel. We’ll be giving her what she wants.”
“No!” Kurt Hoffman jumped to his feet. “The bear spared the goat and refused to take it, then the funnel came. It spared Gretel, too. It could have attacked her and didn’t. You’ll only insult the bear again.”
“Gretel wasn’t a gift then,” Frau Hilda said. “Maybe the bear’s waiting to see if we’ll give her what she wants.”
“I won’t let you. It’s wrong!” Josef Brecht lunged out of his pew to grab the girls and protect them. As he hurried down the aisle toward them, Hans Ulbricht stepped behind him and hit the back of his head, hard, with the butt of his rifle. Josef thudded to the floor. Everyone else in the room sprang to their feet. Shouts rang out. Fists flew. Kurt Hoffman grunted when Gustav and Rudolf Kleist threw him against the wooden wall and shackled him to it with heavy chains, the same chains that Josef Brecht had forged for criminals brought before the council.
Hands reached for and grabbed the girls.
Gretel cried out. When men stormed to help her, they were stopped at gun point by Gustav’s workers.
Franz Wilhelm shook his head. “You bring shame on our village.”
“You’ll get over it once the bear eats the girls and this stupid curse is lifted,” Gustav snarled.
Gretel and Lily were tossed over lumbermen’s shoulders and carted out of the meeting hall doors.