Three men carried Otto into the Schlegels’s great room and laid him on the sofa. The rest dragged the bear’s carcass into the barnyard.
“Might as well use the meat and skin,” Kurt Hoffman said. “No use letting it go to waste.”
While the men watched over Otto, Frau Hilda barked, “Wake up, girls! We need you. Boil water and tear clean rags into bandages.”
The girls pulled on their dresses and heavy socks and ran downstairs to help. While they worked, the other men fussed with the bear. When Hans and the doctor arrived, Frau Hilda sent the girls back upstairs. “Get some sleep. Morning still comes early.”
Gretel waited, then crept downstairs and pulled on her coat.
“If you get caught, Frau Hilda will whip you with a willow limb,” Lily cried. “She might even send you to bed hungry for a week.”
“I’ll be careful,” Gretel promised. “You go back to the attic. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” She slipped out the kitchen door while everyone watched the doctor treat Otto and give Frau Hilda instructions. She ran to the field to untie Rusty. The old goat bleated when she saw her.
“Are you all right?” Gretel tugged at the knot to let the goat loose. She was walking Rusty back to the barn when she heard a noise and turned around. Long shadows cast inky fingers on the snow. The woods were a collage of bare, black limbs protruding from gray gloom.
Gretel squinted her eyes, trying to distinguish one dark shape from another. A huge brown bear stepped into the moonlight. It had been watching her from the edge of the forest. It stood now, motionless.
Gretel stopped, frozen by fear, and waited.
Rusty stepped behind her, putting her head close to Gretel’s legs. Gretel took a deep breath and held it. The bear didn’t move, only watched. What was it waiting for?
“I’m sorry about your cub,” Gretel said. “I wish they hadn’t shot it.”
The bear made a deep snuffling sound, hunched its shoulders, and dropped to all fours, then turned and lumbered back into the woods.
Gretel’s legs felt like rubber. She’d never been so afraid. She pulled Rusty as fast as she could to the far side of the barn and stayed in the shadows to sneak him into his stall. The men in the meadow were all too busy with the dead bear to pay any attention. Then she hurried back to the house and up the steps to the attic.
When the doctor finished examining Otto, Frau Hilda called up to the girls. “Lazy urchins! Wake up! You’re needed again.”
Once more, the girls threw on their wool dresses and thick socks and went to do Frau Hilda’s bidding. When they reached the great room, everyone was standing around its edges, silently watching the doctor. No one spoke. No one moved. The girls leaned against the wall and did the same.
Doctor Theobold shook his head. “The wounds are serious, indeed. The scratches need to be cleaned, but they’ve already turned to ugly red welts. There’s swelling, and I’d guess there’s infection.”
“But he’ll get better, won’t he?” Hans Ulbricht asked. “Otto’s big and strong. Surely he can fight off a little infection.”
The doctor frowned. “There’s no such thing as a little infection. This one is especially bad.” He carefully cleaned each cut and scratch and smeared salve on them. “He must be kept here on the sofa by the fireplace, and he must be kept warm. Keep the fire going and keep a blanket on him. Someone will have to sit with him, to make sure he doesn’t try to throw off the covers.”
Herr Gustav motioned his head toward the girls. “Gretel and Lily can take turns watching him. And no falling asleep when it’s your shift.”
The girls nodded. The men had put Otto on the sofa in the great room, and the tall man’s legs and feet dangled over its edge. His broad shoulders filled the cushions, and his blond head turned one way, then another, trying to get comfortable.
“What about his leg?” Frau Hilda asked. “Will he be able to put weight on it again?”
“He should be able to walk with a cane. I doubt he’ll ever carry the heavy loads he used to,” Doctor Theobold proclaimed. “But I’m sure you’ll be happy if your friend pulls through, even if you can’t use him as a pack mule anymore.”
Frau Hilda’s lips pressed together in a tight line. She didn’t like it when anyone disagreed with her. And to be scolded . . . It was unheard of!
“Surely he doesn’t need a big fire,” Frau Hilda argued. “Our wood supply . . . “
“You cut wood for a living.” The doctor tsk-tsked. “This man helped you kill the bear that killed your sheep. I’ll expect him to be kept warm, to be fed soup to keep up his strength, and someone will have to keep a cold cloth on his forehead to fight the fever.”
“The girls will be too tired to do their regular chores,” Frau Hilda complained.
“Then most of their chores will have to wait,” the doctor said. “Otto deserves the best care possible. I will not tolerate anything less.”
“As you say.” Frau Hilda stalked from the room.
The doctor motioned for Gretel and Lily. “You are to be Otto’s nurses. Let me show you how to care for him.”
The others left them to their lessons, joining Frau Hilda in the kitchen for large slices of the cake she’d prepared.
The doctor showed the girls how to wet cloths in a bucket of cold water, wring them out, and place them on Otto’s forehead. He showed them how to dab at the scratches on his chest and arm.
“The leg is too serious,” he told them. “I’ll come each day to tend to it myself.”
And he was true to his word. Each day, he found the girls by Otto’s side, spooning broth between his lips, changing the cloths on his hot forehead, and cleaning his wounds. Often, Otto tossed and turned, talking wildly, making no sense.
“He’s out of his mind with fever,” the doctor told them. “If we can’t get his temperature down soon, I fear for him.”
“You mean . . . ?” Gretel couldn’t make herself say the words.
The doctor nodded. “You’ve done your best, girls. So have I. But our best might not save him.”
The girls spent every moment they could with their patient. While Gretel milked the goats and gathered eggs, Lily cared for him. While Lily cleaned the dishes and the kitchen, Gretel stood watch over him. And every day, the doctor came from town. But none of their hard work saved Otto. A week after the bear attacked him, he died.