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Johanna was sitting on the windowsill, in her little attic room, waiting for the clock on the church steeple to strike twelve. It was a very warm summer day and her window was opened wide. From her window, Johanna had the best view of the church steeple in the whole town. That was why it was her favorite spot.
Once when her father was a little boy, he had slept in that same room and had sat on the windowsill waiting for the clock to strike twelve. He had waited for the doors under the church steeple to open, just as Johanna was doing now. And he had counted the twelve little riders as they rode out on their white horses. Johanna always thought of her father at this time of the day, as she sat on the windowsill.
It had been a long time since she had been home in America with her parents. She couldn't even remember her father very clearly. He was a sea captain, and because he had become very lonesome on his long voyages, he had decided to take Johanna's mother with him on one of them. So he had sent Johanna to Holland to visit her grandparents.
She remembered as clearly as if it happened yesterday how she had said good-bye to her father and mother. She had kissed them both and tried very hard to show them a happy face.
While her father had held her in his arms, he had said to her, "Thank you very much, my little Johanna, for giving me Mother for such a long time. Think of me when you are in my country and don't forget to give my very special love to the little fiders in the church steeple. Help Grandfather take care of them, so that when I come with Mother to bring you back home, they will ride for us, whenever thechurchclock strikes."
Now Johanna had been in Holland more than four years. Soon after she had come to her grandparents the war in Europe had broken out, and less than a year later, in the early days of May, Holland had been invaded by the German army. For the people of Holland, who had always loved their freedom more than anything else in the world, the presence of the German soldiers was very hard to bear.
From her window seat Johanna looked down over the town. It was an old town with a canal around the center. Behind the canal were the strong fortifications that had once protected the town from enemies that threatened from outside. Her grandparents' house stood at the marketplace, where all the old houses were huddled together, as if they were leaning on each other for support. There were few people in the streets, mostly women and children. It was dangerous these days for men to be out in the streets, since at any time they could be seized and taken far away to work for the Germans.
Johanna looked again at the hands of the big clock on the church steeple. Soon it would be twelve o'clock. After the clock had struck twelve times, the little doors under the steeple would open up and out would come the little riders.
Grandfather had told Johanna all he knew about the history of the little riders. They were as old as the town, and that was many hundreds of years. They were figures of twelve young noblemen who had gone out as crusaders to the Holy Land and who had never returned to the town. Long ago an artisan had made the figures out of lead and ever since they had ridden over the town, sitting proud and erect on their horses.
When the air was still trembling with the last stroke of the clock, six little riders would come out of each door. They would ride up to each other, lift their swords in a salute and then go in the opposite door. In and out as many times as the clock had struck. While they rode in and out of the doors, the carillon of the church played old Dutch folk tunes. The music was carried all over town and could be heard in even the farthest street and in every house where the windows were open.
Ever since Johanna's grandfather was a young man, he had taken care of the church, and his most important task was to take care of the little riders. He was the only man in the town who understood the complex mechanism that made the little riders ride out over the town, every hour, day and night. Johanna helped her grandfather take care of the riders, just as her father had done when he was a small boy, and Johanna loved the little riders just as much as her father did. She always looked up at them, wherever she was in town, when the hour struck. But she always tried to be in her room, where she could see them best, when the clock struck twelve, because then, of course, they rode the longest. Now the clock was already striking the hour and the few women and children down on the quiet marketplace looked up at the church steeple to see the little riders. But just when the clock had struck for the twelfth time and the little doors opened up to let out the first riders, and when the carillon started to play its music, the gay melodies were drowned out.
Toward the marketplace came the sound of oncoming marching. It sounded to Johanna like the rolling of heavy thunder. Those hundreds and hundreds of soldiers' boots they sounded as if they would trample away the cobblestones of the old marketplace. At the same time all the soldiers started to sing. Nothing could be heard anymore of the brave little tunes the carillon sent high up into the sky.The Little Riders. Copyright © by Margaretha Shemin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.