The days after Haguenau were the worst. Dick, saddled with preserving the lives of his remaining men and dealing with the rigors of constant relocation farther into German territory, had no choice but to stand aside and watch Nix spiral down the drain in a flood of booze. Or wine. Anything that would numb the pain and erase the memories.
Dick could do nothing except pray. Every night he set aside a few minutes to pass his best friend’s name along to God, asking Him to mend the tears in Nix’s heart, and fill it with something other than liquor.
God prefers to work behind the scenes, anonymously, and allow man’s faith to be the judge of His work.
Dick didn’t know who was responsible for it, for Nix suddenly seeing the light and sobering up just after the discovery of the camp at Landsberg. Maybe it was the shock of seeing that place that did it. Or maybe Nix had finally seen his condition for what it was: a one-way ticket to an early grave. Whatever it was, Dick thanked God for it nevertheless. He had his friend—his Nix, his Lew—back, only so much happier than before.
Things were getting better. The future was bright, winter was over, and by the grace of God, the sun was shining on Easy Company once more.
Then, sometime toward the end of May, Nix stopped eating.
He insisted it was nothing, probably just a bug or too much wild game. But two weeks into June he still wasn’t better. His color was poor, he was sleeping too much, and his mind seemed to be getting fuzzy. Doc Roe examined him but turned up nothing.
They took Nix to a doctor in the village.
He was diagnosed with acute liver failure.
The doctor told Dick in private, in his heavy Austrian accent, that years of excessive drinking had destroyed about 80% of Nix’s liver functionality, and that unless he could to get to a major hospital and receive a complete blood transfusion, death was imminent. The doctor gave Nix about a week, but that was being generous. It would be a slow, painful end, signaled by dementia, coma, and finally—mercifully—cardiac arrest.
But there was something that could possibly buy him more time, said the doctor. A root, Gelbwurzel, which grew on the steep, treacherous slopes high in the Alps . . .
Dick went back to his billet that night and called in Speirs, Welsh, and a handful of trusted noncoms. He explained Nix’s ailment, his fate, and then told his men that Doctor Schalger had given him a description of the root and where it grew, and that tomorrow at 0500, he was going AWOL to bring it back for Nix.
The men were silent for a moment. Then Ron Speirs stepped forward and insisted he go along. The journey was too dangerous to make alone, he said. If one of them fell, at least the survivor might complete the mission.
Dick stopped by to see Nix before he left that morning. Nix was weak, sallow, lying in bed with Roe keeping watch over him. He smiled when he saw Dick, made jokes about the adventures they’d have together when they got back to the States, and insisted that he would be on his feet again once this flu ran its course.
Dick didn’t tell Nix what Schalger had told him, nor of the dangerous mission he and Speirs were about to undertake in order to save his life. He just smiled, squeezed Nix’s hand, and told him to hang tough.
They started at the foothills, scaling huge boulders and stumbling over exposed tree roots. There was no path, so they were constantly turning back if they reached an impasse. They crawled up the faces of cliffs that stood over sprawling, hundred-foot gorges. They camped where the tree line ended the first night, and were stunned by how much colder it was than just a few miles below.
The next day they began to see ice. Their paratrooper boots skidded and slipped, and they had to use greater caution, which slowed them down. They made less than two miles that day.
After the ice came the snow. They knew they were getting closer, and that gave them hope; they were not well-equipped for this mission. They lacked proper footwear, tools, they didn’t have enough rope, and their food supply was dwindling. They were taking too long.
They huddled together on the night of the third day, shivering under a blanket as gusts of wind pelted them with snow and ice. Dick found himself praying for his own survival as well as Nix’s, and asked God to give him the strength to find this medicine.
And the very next day, they did.
They harvested as much of the root as they could carry, gouging it from the moist, shadowy crags of rocks until their knuckles were bloody and their fingers stiff with cold.
They made their way down the mountain, their hearts alive with hope and their feet slipping in their haste. The ill weather disappeared and the sun shone down on them, warming them after four long days of battling freezing temperatures.
They arrived back at the billet on the fifth day, tired but triumphant, right around noon.
It was there that they learned Lewis Nixon had died the night before.
He lay on the bed with his hands folded on his chest, as if only sleeping. The men stood outside the door, watching with drawn faces and woeful eyes as Dick knelt by the bed of his best friend and placed his scratched, bloody hand on Nix’s cold, lifeless one.
He lost it then, bowing his head and weeping broken sentences onto Nix’s shoulder. He stroked Nix’s dark hair and begged him to come back, even if just for a minute so that he could say goodbye. But Nix was gone—gone without a word—and he wasn’t coming back.
The men stood aside as Dick walked over the threshold carrying Nix’s body in his arms. They followed him, a silent funeral procession, as he made his way down to the shores of the sparkling Zeller See. They stared in muted shock as Dick walked into the water, boots sloshing noisily. The water rose to his waist, but still he kept going.
Lipton stepped forward to intervene, but Speirs pulled him back, shaking his head.
They watched Dick’s coppery-red hair disappear under the water. They held their breaths, waiting, until all the ripples had vanished.
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