“What about you, Mr Shatterhand?“ Mariano asked, still laughing. “Any scars that have tales to tell?“
Winnetou felt himself snap back to focus when the attention turned to his brother.
It was a warm evening. They—himself, Charley, a Yankee named Green and a pair of brothers named Sanchez from further south—did not need to rush and so they decided to settle down for the night. A small campfire had been lit and stories were exchanged as the sun slowly retreated over the horizon. At some point, the conversation had turned to past scrapes.
Green, a fur hunter, was full of such stories. He had been in mortal peril far too many times, be it because of a bear or a native on a warpath, and told his tales with great humour and enthusiasm. Mariano had one—a tale both thrilling and heart-warming since it had started with being shot in the side and ended with meeting his future wife—and his older brother Diego had been silent. Winnetou had stayed silent as well; the thought of scars had left him remembering times long gone.
Charley grinned. “Far too many of them, I'd say!“ He laughed, and added: “I tend to get in the way of far too many blades and bullets, you know?“
“And what of the most famous scar?” said Green.
Winnetou felt the muscles in his jaw tense up, teeth clicking shut and tongue pressing hard against the roof of his mouth—but for once, his friend did not notice. Charley had let his smile fade and his gaze drop to the fire, absent-mindedly reaching a hand to his neck and letting his fingers graze the rough, jagged edges of the old scar.
After six years, it has faded from a dark, angry red to a much more palatable shade of pink, but it was still there, still visible and prominent. It drew attention. Men would stop to whisper to their companions. Women would raise a hand to their hearts in silent horror. Some would cross themselves, thinking, perhaps, that only the will of a higher power could have saved him from a wound so clearly fatal.
Winnetou could not blame them. Not when he still thanked any spirit that would listen that his brother had survived.
Charley let his hand drop. “Doesn't everyone know how I got this one?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“I mean, yes,“ said Green, “but, well—still seems like a thrilling tale, to hear it straight from you.”
Charley shook his head. “It’s not much of a tale,“ he said. “I was fighting Intschu-tschuna, I think, I—it’s been six years, I really don’t remember it very well.”
“Please, sir, do remember,“ said Green, excitedly. “Wasn't it Winnetou who gave you that scar? That's what they say at least.“
Mariano's dark, perceptive eyes darted between all three of them, a deep crevice appearing in between his brows. His brother, despite his laid-back posture, seemed to be watching the exchange like a hawk as well. Green? Green almost gave off the impression of a child in a candy store.
“Well, yes, he did.“ Charley kept his gaze firmly to the ground, not meeting anyone's eye; his face was hidden, out of reach of the fire's pale light. “As I said, I was fighting his father. I don't—I don't remember what exactly was happening. I mean—I managed to beat him, I think—I remember standing above his unconscious body.“
Charley remained silent for a while; the others did not interrupt this, seeing that he was gathering his words. Winnetou found himself remembering the day they first met.
A summer's day—the skies were bright and clear, the air hot, dry and heavy with the scent of fear and blood; he could almost taste the copper on his tongue. A corpse of a man, torn to pieces. Grey fur, red blood. And—him.
He was eighteen, as he had later learned—he had barely stood on the line between a child and a man—and yet, there he was, victorious, a knife held firmly in his hand and the carcass of a grey bear growing cold at his feet. At first, Winnetou had been impressed. He had been content to stand back and simply observe the young man; he noticed the untamed, gold-tinted hair, the tired, bruise-like circles under his eyes, the anger slowly seeping through as he argued with the other pale faces—and then, the boy had turned to meet his eyes. His gaze was firm, determined, and seemed to pierce right through him, and yet there was no judgement or prejudice in his eyes. At that moment, Winnetou had felt the pull of affection in his chest.
And then, there had been a drunk man and a murderer, and he had decided the emotion to be a parasite.
“Well—you must understand what it looked like,” Charley finally continued. ”In the middle of the battle—it must’ve, well.“ His voice was barely above a whisper. “It must’ve looked like I killed him.”
It had. At that very moment, when the pale-faced man stood above his father—just like he had stood above the still-warm carcass of the bear—all of it, every emotion that had been simmering under the surface had come to a horrible, devastating boiling point. He wanted blood. He needed blood, that man's blood—and soon, very soon, it would stain his hands and his nightmares forever—
Charley cleared his throat, once again ripping him out of his swirling thoughts. “And so, Winnetou fought me. Well, I did not win that one.”
But he did. He had won—despite the pain he must have felt and the blood that filled his throat and choked him, he had still defeated him. But he had been the one to never get up after the fight; perhaps that was why he considered himself defeated.
Hawkens had thought he was dead. Winnetou would never—not until his last dying breath—forget the old man’s scream. The three men had forgone all fighting to rush to the boy's side, but their gentle touches and desperate pleas would not rouse him.
Hawkens had screamed until he lost his voice and his cries had died down to quiet, hoarse pleading. It had been painful to listen to, but no one could bring themselves to silence him. Winnetou thought he should despise such a show of uncontrolled emotion. He only felt a strange sense of respect for the man—this, he understood. This was a father who had lost a son. His two friends had gone completely quiet. Stone had silent tears running down his face as he gently combed his fingers through the young man's hair, brushing dried blood and dirt out of his matted curls. Parker kneeled a foot or so away, curled into himself, his face hidden in his hands as his entire frame trembled like leaf in the wind.
The guilt had already appeared long ago when his father had gotten up.
The boy would not get up again.
Winnetou had approached the three grieving men, fingers brushing against the hilt of his knife. He knew that any of them might throw aside all reason and attempt to kill him in the middle of his own men.
None of them did. Perhaps they were too weighed down by their grief to move when they allowed him near; they hadn't even acknowledged his presence as he, for the first time since their battle has ended, truly looked at the boy. It was a horrible sight. Almost all of his clothes were stained in one way or another, by blood or by dirt; the original colour of his shirt collar could no longer be discerned as it was now a dark shade of red. Most of his skin was covered in a layer of congealed blood as well. Only the upper half of his face had been spared, instead slick with sweat and tears.
His tears hadn't dried yet, and there was fresh blood still trickling down through the corner of his mouth and soaking into his hair. He couldn't have been dead for long.
Winnetou took hold of the boy's wrist, gently pressing his thumb against the pulse point. He found nothing. But then—he was not sure what had possessed him at that moment—he reached to push his fingertips into the boy's bloodied neck, right where his knife had cut the skin on its way up.
They came away bloody, and yet his hands felt less stained than before. He had found a weak, barely-there pulse.
“I did not win that one,” Charley repeated, absent-mindedly. He reached into a pocket hidden inside his leather coat, pulling out a small, familiar tin box. Once upon a time, he—a young man with an honest smile and eyes as blue as a mountain lake—had opened that box, pulling out a lock of raven hair that had meant to be his salvation and that had instead been the first link in a bond Winnetou could no longer live without. Charley would become a friend, then, a brother, and then, the part of his soul he hadn't known was missing.
“This was in my breast pocket,” Charley said, turning the box in his hands in such a way that the long, deep dent on it glinted in the light of the campfire. “The knife slipped off, and, well.” He gestured to his neck. “This is it.”
Charley lifted his chin, showing the deepest, ugliest part of the mark, where the scar tissue was still dark and messy—and, unwillingly, Winnetou looked. For a moment, Green looked like he would ask more. Mariano, however, distracted him with a question of his own, setting off another tale of Green's adventures.
Another two hours passed before they set out to sleep. Winnetou didn't remember much of what was said during those two hours, far too disturbed by his memories to listen. Charley had also fallen quiet, no longer making his remarks; his eyes, however, were as alert and perceptive as ever as he watched the conversation unfold. As the company burst into loud, boisterous laughter, he sent a small smile his way. Winnetou attempted to smile back, and the corners of his mouth felt stiff as he did so.
Eventually, they did go to sleep. Diego Sanchez had taken the first watch and all the others wrapped themselves in blankets and laid down to rest around the campfire. Charley had laid down next to him, facing him, and watched him with a hint of concern as he sat down and made no move to go to sleep.
“Are you alright?” he asked him quietly in the dialect of his tribe. ”You seem—far away.”
“I am fine, just very tired.”
Charley nodded. “I am as well. Sleep well, my brother.”
“You too, Sharlih.”
Winnetou finally laid down, if only to keep up appearances. He was well aware that sleep would elude him tonight—how could it not, when his heart hammered in his chest and blood rushed through his ears? He couldn't even close his eyes for more than a short, fleeting moment; his gaze always returned to the man a few feet away, as if, somehow, he would disappear if he didn't guard him.
It didn't take long for his brother to fall asleep. Charley was—peaceful. He always was. And yet, now that he was asleep—now, when even that slight sharpness, that all-seeing gaze he seemed to possess fell away—the peace he had always found in his presence was gone. He felt numb and cold. He felt as if his head was at the bottom of a river, the dark, murky waters rushing around his ears and distorting the world beyond recognition. He could only watch as his brother's chest rose and fell with deep, calm breaths.
“You should go to sleep, sir.” Winnetou turned around. It was Sanchez, his face half-lit by the light of the campfire, concern quite evident in the furrow of his brows. “I, uh, I know I shouldn’t tell you what to do, sir, but you’re clearly tired,” he whispered.
“I can’t,” Winnetou admitted. Sanchez held his gaze for a few seconds, and then, his shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly. Winnetou could see that he understood.
“He doesn’t blame you..”
“Maybe that makes it worse.”
“Talk to him about it,” Sanchez said, softly. “It’ll hurt less.”
Winnetou shrugged. Sanchez turned back to his post again with a sigh; his dark eyes scanned their surroundings with an alertness that, at that moment, seemed almost astonishing. Winnetou knew he was not capable of such attention in his strange, high-strung state. He settled back into his blankets. Hopefully, his erratic heart would calm down enough to fall asleep, and after that, he'd be alert and focused enough to stand guard. He forced himself to close his eyes. Charley was fine. Charley was fine.
He kept this up like a mantra, until, suddenly—a sound. A quiet, barely perceptible sound, nothing more than a harsh, quick exhale, and Winnetou's eyes snapped open. At first glance, nothing was amiss. Charley was still asleep. A slight line had appeared in between his brows. His breathing hitched ever so slightly, not calming down but instead growing quicker, more irregular—a nightmare. He was having a nightmare.
Winnetou sat up, immediately reaching a hand to his brother—and stopped.
It felt as if a coil of wire had been wrapped around his lungs; he had to move. He had to run. He could barely breathe.
He leapt up, whispered something to Sanchez—what, he didn't know—and vanished into the forest. He had to run. The light of the fire paled and disappeared. He could no longer see his surroundings. He sank into the damp moss; his palms were wet, slippery with sweat and dew as he attempted to steady himself. In the darkness, he could barely see the outline of his shaking hands.
His hands were wet, slick, and an echo of red flashed through his vision—then wide, terrified, blue eyes—milk-white, freckled skin stained with blood—blood bursting through chapped lips—a gurgling sound—and he—couldn't—breathe—
The memories fell silent. Charley.
He was in the forest, his lungs struggling to expand with quick, shallow breaths and his entire frame trembling. A lone tear had traced its way down his face. He wiped it off with a trembling hand and raised his eyes—and there was his brother, his face cast in the pale light of a lit match. As soon as their eyes met, the match, the match was gone, discarded, and Charley was at his side.
“Winnetou—what in the name of—what is it? Please!”
Winnetou didn't, couldn't answer. Charley pulled him into a desperate embrace, close to his chest, close enough to feel his brother's heart beating—loud, fast, frantic, but beating. They sat there for a long time. As the tremors receded, he realised that Charley was trembling as well.
“Sharlih,“ he whispered into his shoulder. “You had a nightmare, before.“
Charley let out a quiet, startled laugh. “I—yes, but that's what concerns you now? A bad memory from my childhood, nothing more.“
Childhood. Not youth, childhood.
“What did you do with the match?“ Winnetou asked.
This time, the laugh was a little louder. “I did not set the forest on fire if that's what you're asking. I put it out. It's in the moss somewhere.“ He paused. “Do you think we'll have to look for it?“
“No,“ said Winnetou. “We're on friendly territory. We can leave tracks. And I'm tired.“
“I can't blame you,“ Charley said, no judgement in his tone. He stood up, holding out a hand. “Come on—we'll sleep better in the warmth of the fire. If you want to talk about it, I'm here.“
Winnetou took the offered hand and let himself be helped off the ground. Charley was looking at him with his wide, earnest eyes. He took a deep, steadying breath.
Charley froze. “What for?“ Then, slowly, a horrifying realisation dawned upon his face. “Is this about—?“ His fingers reached to the underside of his jaw.
“Yes.“ Winnetou swallowed. “I'm sorry, and I'm sorry I haven't said so before.“
“You needn't say sorry,“ Charley said. “You don't have to—you don't have to apologise. Not to me.“
“You know I'd forgive you anything.“
Winnetou gave him a small, sad smile. “You never demand what you deserve, do you?“
Charley let his gaze drop to the ground. „No, I guess not,“ he muttered.
There was no further answer. Winnetou began walking back to their camp. A few seconds later, a second set of footsteps joined his—then, the hiss of another match and a pale glow illuminated his path. He turned. His brother was walking by his side, tired and worn out but alive, gloriously alive.
“I suppose—I suppose I accept your apology. I don't need it. I don't want it, either. But I accept it.“
Winnetou smiled. “Thank you.“