This is a work of fiction concerning the characters in the series and has no relation to the lives of the real persons involved in WWII. Naturally, certain historical data have been altered to better suit this story. This is purely for entertainment and no disrespect is intended. Begun in 2010.
January 2, 1945
Richard Winters sat under the sagging canvas tent, listening to the chuck of shovels against the icy earth. Men scraping and scratching for whatever they could break loose. Tired men. Shivering men, mining for warmth, carving out their miserable shelters.
It was shit work; the ground was frozen almost ten inches down, limited energy wasted on basic survival instead of combat. But the men clung to their shovels with white knuckles and bloodless fingers, scattering meager ounces of black soil and wintry slush over their shoulders. They dug because they had to, because The End was staring down at them as they dropped their heavy boots onto the spades and churned up another handful. Foxholes were the only thing that stood between a soldier and his death, and all the men of Easy Company knew that.
Death wasn’t just waiting beyond the front line, but was falling all around them. Creeping under their clothes. Saturating their lungs like invisible poison. Settling into their bones and their empty bellies. Like a vicious whore with kisses of frost, the Ardennes had welcomed the men with open arms and now lay with them all, making love to them slowly—sweetly, gently, so that they wouldn’t feel a thing, wouldn’t notice that she was lulling their hearts to sleep in her deadly, snowy embrace.
The captain wrapped his arms tighter around himself, curling his toes in his boots and pressing his bare fingers into the pathetic warmth under his arms. The voices of the men out on the line were muffled, the snow deadening all sound, turning the forest into an eerie, dreamlike world in which no echoes fell. In this world there was no sky, no stars, no universe. Everything ended above the treetops, and the rest was nothing but blank, black space.
It was an easy fantasy to get lost in. No America, no Germany, no war. Just this scene, this play. It made it a lot easier to focus on one’s deplorable predicament: holding the line, waiting for the world to shatter with a burst of artillery, under-equipped, cold, hungry, hoping that the medics would have enough supplies to keep a wounded man alive.
Sergeant Lipton was aware how dangerous this morbid dwelling on the situation was to morale, and did his best to remind the troops of the world outside of Ardennes. Winters tried to smile when he stopped by the tent to report, but it was difficult to manage, especially after Lip told him they were one less man and that Dike was still MIA. The outlook of the situation was growing dimmer with each passing moment.
Winters stared out into the approaching night, between the dark trunks of untidy trees with their branches caked in snow. It was always dark here, even during the day. Almost as if the sun were afraid to shine on this cursed forest. The heavy fog had thinned a little, revealing a bleak, unfriendly landscape that was better off shrouded. Surely it was different in spring, Winters imagined, shuddering. Warm and grassy and sun-dappled. Green leaves and sweet pine. Gentle breezes and living creatures.
The fantasy faded before his eyes as a dry, rasping cough barked faintly in the distance.
For now, at least, the Ardennes was the forest where Death dwelled.
The crunch of boots through the snow alerted Winters of a newcomer. He turned his head slightly, more as a gesture of awareness than an actual effort to see.
“How’re ya holdin’ up?” Lewis Nixon rubbed his hands together and sat down on a crate beside his friend.
“I’m fine,” replied Winters, glancing over Nixon’s face briefly before returning his gaze to the trees.
“Really? You look a little cold.” It was a comment meant to be taken lightly, but the understatement was hardly humorous. Winters was shaking all over, and it would have looked ridiculously theatrical if it weren’t genuine.
“I’m fine,” he repeated flatly.
Nixon didn’t respond immediately. He let his eyes wander over Winters’ huddled form, examining his pallor, his posture, his shudder, gathering the intelligence that conversation would never deign to afford him. Winters’ bare knuckles peeked out from beneath his sleeve, ashy white and cracking from the cold.
“How many shifts are you planning on doing, Dick?”
“As many as I have to.”
“Is that so. What happened to your gloves?”
“Gave ‘em to Eugene. He needed them more than me.”
That was probably the truth. A medic wouldn’t be much of a medic if he couldn’t use his hands. Nixon pried again. “It’s getting dark. Where’s your blanket? Where’s the Coleman?”
“I lent my last one to Malarkey. Aid station’s got the stove. And before you lecture me about charity, Captain, remember who’s risking their lives out on that line. This tent’s more than what I need.”
“Yeah,” Nixon nodded, grinning mirthlessly. “This is a swell little HQ you’ve got here. Nice and drafty, open on all four sides, just letting in that crisp winter breeze . . . refreshing.”
Winters felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth.
Nixon bumped his shoulder against his friend’s. “Don’t be a martyr, Dick. The guys’ll still respect you if you’re not an icicle in the morning, I promise. Listen—” he pointed in some vague direction behind him, “—instead of sitting out here in the open and keeping the trees company, I’ve got a nice foxhole just over there, good and deep with a blanket and everything, so why don’t you snap your frozen ass offa that crate and come join me?”
Winters smiled thinly. “I appreciate the offer, Lew, but I belong here, where my men can find me.”
His tenacity vexed Nixon. Nixon didn’t like being vexed. It made him defensive and sarcastic. Much the same way he reacted to rejection, which was another thing he hated. That hurt him most of all. “So you’re just gonna sit here all night, with no blanket or stove and no goddamn gloves, and wait for first light or first fight, is that it?”
“Nobody’s making you stay, Captain.” Winters’ voice was sharp as he met Nixon’s eyes. “If you don’t like it, you’re free to leave.” His tone softened a little when he saw his friend’s hands tighten into fists. “Go on. Get some sleep. I’ll be fine.”
Nixon remained motionless for a few seconds, his dark eyes boring holes through Winters’ pale blue ones. Then he rose and disappeared into the snowy twilight, leaving no words to conclude his futile argument. Winters could hear his footsteps fade away until the silence had taken over once more. He stretched his stiff fingers and rubbed them uselessly, letting his thoughts drift back to the present.
Nix was only trying to look out for him. Thoughtful of him, especially considering how far removed it was from his usual demeanor. Introverted. Aloof. Unaffected. Not that he was incapable of caring for people—he had a family, after all—but the bottle had a talent for coming between friends and numbing associations. Turning good men into self-pitying, self-destructive, self-centered bastards. That he still stuck with Winters after all this was a testament to the largeness of his heart. A heart that, regrettably, no one else could see behind the tinted glass of Vat 69.
Winters exhaled a shivering breath and watched the thin cloud fade before his eyes. He felt low. And cold. And hungry. And tired. But it wouldn’t be forever, and that was all that mattered. He could endure. He would persevere.
He didn’t really care for the alternative.
He didn’t know exactly when it was that he dozed off, but when he opened his eyes again it was darker. The snowy landscape gave the evening a ghostly quality, reflecting what little light actually penetrated the cloudy sky and dense branches. Had he heard something? Or had he been dreaming?
Winters straightened his aching back, unfolded his aching arms, stretched his aching legs. The cold that he had forgotten during sleep came back with a vengeance, chewing into his flesh and leaving his body feeling shrunken and beaten.
The sound came again, and Winters realized it had not been a dream.
He stood as quickly as his stiff muscles would allow and turned to see a dark figure shuffling out of the trees toward his tent. He recognized Nixon’s stride, but was too perplexed by his reappearance to greet him. He was definitely pissed, though. Nobody walked that heavily, even in military-issue boots.
Nixon ducked his head as he stepped under the sad little shelter and stood before Winters, all defiance and wounded ego. He gave a crisp, formal nod. “Captain.”
Winters returned it, eyes falling to Nixon’s arms. Arms that suddenly dropped a frost-covered wool blanket and a few panels of shattered wood. Probably from an ammo crate that had been blasted in an earlier attack.
Nixon kneeled down and began to arrange the pieces of wood on the hard, icy dirt. He worked silently, lips drawn tightly and looking very serious, until a square little pallet was formed. He grabbed the blanket and gave it a few flaps to rid the frost clinging to the fibers, then threw it around his shoulders. He left a suspiciously large amount of it on his right.
He finally looked up at Winters, his expression relaxing a little. “Well, c’mon.”
“Wh . . .” The captain’s eyebrows quirked, his mouth wanting to smile but unsure if it was appropriate. “Nix . . .”
“If I have to sleep out in the open, I’m not doing it on the wet ground. Or alone.” He nodded his head to the right. “C’mon. It’s big enough, and you need it more than me.”
Winters hesitated, slowly realizing what Nixon had done. For somebody other than himself.
“Will you quit looking at me like that and just get over here?”
In no position (and having no reason) to decline, Winters seated himself on the broken pieces of wood and accepted the heavy blanket around his body. Nixon slid closer, muttering, “Took you long enough. Here, gimme your hands.”
Winters held them out, white and naked. Rimed with dirt and grease. Long, sturdy fingers more suited for farming than warfare. They trembled from the cold as Nixon peeled off his thin, ragged gloves and clasped them in his own.
“Jesus. You’re like ice.”
His weren’t much warmer, but they felt better than nothing. He massaged them roughly, rubbing the feeling back into them. Winters watched, quiet.
Nixon cupped his hands over his friend’s and leaned down, blowing warm air onto them. He alternated this pattern for a few minutes, breathing and rubbing until finally Winters’ hands were raw and pink and moving again. They hurt like hell now that he could feel them, but pain was a good sign. At least in this case.
Winters kept his head bowed and smiled. Bashful, at a time like this. “Thanks. But you could’ve just shot them, you know.”
Nixon laughed, a real laugh with real spirit. It was the first time Winters had heard him do that since entering Bastogne. Or Normandy, for that matter.
“I’m serious. I bet a bullet would’ve felt better.”
Nixon took hold of Winters’ hands again and rubbed, shaking his head. “If you keep this up I’m gonna tell Luz you’re out to commandeer his position as company wise guy.”
“You can tell him not to worry. I’m not that wise.”
The dark haired man grinned. “Typical Dick Winters response.”
They met eyes for a moment and stared, as if appraising each other’s condition. Nixon, scruffy and unshaven, his hair stringy and unwashed under his battle-scarred helmet, face smudged with grease and dirt; Winters, cheeks thin and pallid, eyelids purple and lips colorless, a white face swallowed up by the dark petals of his coat collar—like some kind of war flower. Nixon smelled of cigarettes and wet wool; Winters of gun grease and leather. Beneath these scents the omnipresent odor of oily scalps and sweaty skin and armpits and dirty socks lingered, unacceptable for either of them in any other situation, yet unnoticed or forgiven now.
Winters realized that Nixon had stopped rubbing his hands long ago. A second later Nixon came to the same conclusion, and they drew their hands away. Nixon folded his under his arms and pretended that the underside of the canvas roof was interesting. Winters pulled his half of the blanket around himself and pondered the usefulness of it.
“Hm?” Nixon altered his attention.
“You remember Fort Benning?”
“The old Frying Pan.” Nixon smirked. “Hard to forget it. I think I recall meeting a skinny redhead there—”
“Skinny?” Winters echoed.
“—yeah. A real beanpole, this guy, and no fun at all, who ended up twisting my arm and forcing me to join the paratroopers-”
“You followed me to Toccoa.”
“Only because I thought you were smart; if I’da known I’d be stuck in this shit, I would have signed up for the Rangers.”
“I bet I’d be a general by now if it weren’t for you.” He winked. In the dim shadows he looked suddenly younger than his twenty six years. He was once more that boyish, charming smart aleck from Jersey. The one who smuggled booze in other people’s footlockers and never took anything seriously. Not even death. “But no, I go skippin’ after Dicky Winters and jump outta planes and get shot in the head and freeze my ass off. That’s what I get for chasin’ redheads. You’re all nothing but trouble.”
Winters parried, “You didn’t have to follow me.”
“I know. But I figured at least one of us should know where he’s going.” He gazed up at the imaginary sky above the tent. “You needed someone to watch your back, anyway. Just think where you’d be without me: sitting here, giving your last name a literal meaning.”
“It’d be a whole lot quieter, that’s for sure.”
“Aw, shut up.” He reached out and put his arm around Winters’ shoulders, pulling him closer. Their helmets clunked together. They leaned against one another and shivered, wooly and weary, gazing out into the Ardennes night.
We’ve come so far since Fort Benning, Winters had wanted to say before Nixon’s tangent had stolen the conversation. We’ve seen and lived things that nobody else will ever understand. We’ve bled and froze and starved together. And this war, our story, is still unfinished. Who knows where tomorrow will find us? If I die next week or live to a hundred, there will be no bond like the bond between us. It can’t be reproduced ever again . . . And I can’t imagine ever caring about another human being as deeply as I do you.
“You’re a good man, Lew,” murmured Winters.
“I know,” Nixon smirked.
“Thanks for following me.”
“Thanks for being a man worth following. Not many of your kind left.”
“I bet you’d find some if you looked.”
“No, thanks. You’re already a handful.”
For a while they sat on the wooden pallet, huddled together like mice. They listened to the crack of tree branches and the faint sounds of the men. Coughing. Talking. Trudging back and forth to their foxholes. Then the long hours of cold and sleeplessness got the best of them, and they lay down side by side, helmets removed and set aside. Nixon wrapped his body around Winters’, one arm fitted snugly about his waist and holding him close. There was nothing sentimental in this—they were just trying to survive. They drew the blanket over their heads and tried to get comfortable on the broken pieces of wood. It wasn’t going to be a restful night, but at least they had each other.
“Man,” Nixon shuddered, “wonder what the wife would say if she could see me now.”
“Yeah. Probably.” Pause. “It’s already on the rocks. Our marriage, I mean. I’m not even sure she’ll be there when I get back. If I get back.”
“Is that why you joined the military?” asked Winters, gazing blindly in the darkness under the blanket. “To get away?”
He heard Nixon sigh heavily. He felt it, right on his neck. “Maybe. I guess. I dunno. Maybe . . . maybe I was hoping for something. Like an epiphany, or someone, God or whoever, would show me what to do. Or maybe I’m just fucking up again, I dunno.”
Winters blinked slowly. “I think you’re right where you’re supposed to be.”
“What, huddled up with you?”
“I mean in life.”
“Oh. You’re one of those Fate and Destiny types, aren’t you?” The disdain in Nixon’s voice was apparent.
“I don’t know, Lew. Does it really matter?”
He paused. “I guess not. You’re a pretty swell guy either way.”
Winters smiled. A compliment from Lewis Nixon was a rare thing. Even rarer still were the compliments he actually meant. “Thanks.”
Nixon never replied. At least verbally. He gave Winters a squeeze and fell asleep breathing against his ear. Winters folded his arm beneath his head and listened to the night. It was so cold out there. So dark. But dawn would come, and spring would follow eventually.
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