They were finally returning, Intschu-tschuna and Winnetou and the rest of the warriors; her father had sent word forward to make preparations. Nscho-tschi smiled and began her tasks for that; readying their rooms, preparing the welcome meal and talking to the families of those who had fallen in the fight. Her heart sang with joy. She knew they were great warriors, she did not doubt them, but after leaving on the path of war, she couldn't help but worry. Her mother had taught her what to do about that; and she had taught her how rejoicing was part of how things were, more than the wars.
When her tasks were done, she rode out to meet the returning men, as always.
There was anger in the face of Intschu-tschuna, because their teacher was gone and because of all that had come to pass; it was the shadow over Winnetou's eyes which worried her. The captives rode among the warriors of the Apache, the Kiowa intended for ransom and the white men for torture, and she stayed well away from them, turning her horse to ride with her brother.
She didn't ask what troubled him, but she stayed close, because his sensitive heart would take more comfort in presence of those he loved than in prying and seeking out the pain. Especially so close aftlosing Klekih-Petra. There would be time; he would tell her if he needed her to know.
As all the captives were settled in and around the pueblo, she listened to her father and her brother issue orders - Intschu-tschuna about the warriors and how to treat the Kiowa until their ransom came, and Winnetou about the white men. It was then that she learned about the one who hadn't been riding, hidden in his leather carrier and too sick to know or care for his whereabouts or his coming fate. It was then that she heard Winnetou's uncertainty over what to do with the young white man who had been injured so gravely. She did not see him then; but when the stories were told after the evening meal, she learned how the surviving white men had deceived them, and how they kept insisting on what wasn't true.
It was days later, when she had seen her brother arguing with the short hairy white man, that she sought Winnetou out.
"My brother is troubled." Her words were soft, and so had her steps been on the mossy ground in the woods she had followed him into.
He didn't betray his surprise, if indeed he was surprised by her presence, but instead turned to her with a smile that wasn't reaching his eyes. "Nscho-tschi sees many things others do not."
Her own smile edged back to the surface with the compliment. "Only because I try to look with the heart, not only the eyes." After he inclined his head in agreement, she pressed a little. "The young man who was injured does not let you rest, after the great adventures that you had."
Winnetou looked away, into the brook seeking its way to the Rio Pecos, low with the season. "I gave him that wound. I would like to know if it was a just reward for a lying dog like him, or an unjustly cruel treatment."
"Did they not all lie?"
"When Sam Hawkins talks about him, I almost believe that my first impression of him was the true one."
"What did you first think of him?"
"I thought I saw in his eyes goodness and fairness, and he seemed to have our teacher's favor, before he died. He is strong and he is brave, and he felled a grizzly bear, facing him with his knife alone. Winnetou did not want to think him a bad person." His voice and expression remained unchanged; she heard the pain in his voice, anyway.
"He felled you twice. He was here to steal our land, and he was with the man who killed Klekih-Petra."
Winnetou straightened. "And for that, the wound through his tongue may yet take his life, even as Sam Hawikins argues that he still lives. And if it doesn't, then he will be tortured and sent to be Klekih-Petra's servant in the Eternal Hunting Grounds."
"Howgh," her face turned down in agreement. It was a grievous crime, and it merited adequate punishment.
Talking about it seemed to lessen Winnetou's burden, but not much. Ten more days passed, and suddenly the white man awakened, his body winning through the fever and tetanus and pain, to the surprise of all who knew the state of things. When it was decided that he would live, Winnetou came to her.
"Selwiki Lata may live, but he is very weak. Someone must care for him until he is strong enough to withstand the torture that he deserves, or perhaps the trial of strength, if Intschu-tschuna our father so wills. But he doesn't speak our language; will my sister, whose fair hands are the best to care for the sick and wounded, take charge of his healing? She can have an assistant, but not all who can do this know English."
Nscho-tschi looked up into his face, and she thought how, despite all the proof he had that Selwiki Lata was no friend of his, Winnetou still loved him a little. It made her wonder what kind of a man he was. She wanted to know, besides wanting to please Winnetou.
"Yes. I will take care of him."
Her brother smiled, and told her which room he had ordered the white man to be taken to, and what she could and couldn't do. He knew that she would never overstep her bounds, and what he said, she would do.
Although she had seen the effects of prolonged sickness, the sight of the young man startled her. He was bone-thin, and he reeked, the smells of his infection and of the long time he had neither bathed nor washed his clothes mixing to make her gag for a moment; her helper smiled and patted her back.
"He has been almost dead for three weeks; it is a wonder he does not smell as a corpse."
Nscho-tschi thought about it, and nodded with a small smile. "It is true. Maybe it is a good sign."
Instead of being unconscious from pain and illness, Selwiki Lata was sleeping now, deep and long. It was another day before he woke; the two of them were not expecting it and were engaged in a conversation on the best colors to embroider clothes for different occasions. The older woman had a good eye, and was telling her how to mix the dyes to match the color of clouds at sunset, when the easy wait was finished and she met Selwiki Lata for the first time.
His face was gaunt and his speech was weak and faltering, but his eyes were bright and clear already. They talked a long while, even though they said few things because of his wound; he bore through the pain he must have felt in a way that commanded respect. He had questions she had answers for, and ones she didn't - because she didn't know, or because Winnetou had told her not to give them.
The first thing he asked was to have somebody tell his friends that he was awake and healing.
What kind of people were the white men, who could care so much, be this proud and strong, and yet be lying and cheating and stealing? She did not understand. But she did, at least, comprehend Winnetou's heart, torn about a single man as he had never doubted his judgment about another.
Day after day, Selwiki Lata became stronger, and healthier. Day after day, his eyes remained gentle, and so did his words and his treatment of Nscho-tschi and her helper, gentle and respectful.
Sometimes, when he slept or when she was on her way to and from another place, she stopped to talk with Sam Hawkins and his two friends. She learned about the strength that Selwiki Lata had, before he was wounded. About the books he loved and how much he learned and concluded from them; how he had a gift for being out in the West, and how well his friend loved him and worried about him, the youth.
Her heart spoke to her, and she knew it was wrong, and hid the words that it spoke to her deep inside herself. When there was no reason to tend to him, she sought solitude or simple tasks with Winnetou, because she understood now how his heart and mind were torn the same way. Neither of them could stop the conflict raging in them, but being near somebody who understood helped. They didn't need to talk about it, that would have made it worse. He knew, without having to ask her.
The day dawned when the Kiowa ransom came, horses and tools and skins. Items for lives spared and future battles, because Klekih-Petra taught them that even an unfair bargain was better than taking lives without need.
It was Selwiki Lata's trusting eyes that undid her, tear rolling down her cheek and some of what was kept in her heart coming out to trust in the stranger, the liar, the thief.
Who she had come to despise for his duplicity...