“The Promised War”, Part 2
-Liberia, Costa Rica- Nicasio watched as Lt. Col. Juan Alfaro Ruicostaz wobbled on his horse and nearly fell. Two soldiers helped him down and almost carrying him they took him to an empty cabin near the road. The march stopped. Colonel Lorenzo Salazar was with him for almost two hours and when he returned he made a gesture of defeat. Words were not necessary.
Alfaro had been not only a brave soldier, but also an intelligent and generous commander. That he was among the victims, speaking eloquently of the capricious nature of the murderer, who did not respect age, military rank, or social status. But it also called into question that the epidemic was caused by the unhealthy air of the Nicaraguan lands, since the troops had already crossed the border and were advancing rapidly towards Liberia.
Far from diminishing the malignancy of the plague, it seemed to increase. During the time Alfaro was dying, two other soldiers had perished in the shade of a Guanacaste tree, shaken by gloomy spasms. While helping to dig a new hole (so many had been made along the way!), Nicasio became aware that death had not been left behind, as Don Juanito had promised would happen, but was still among the troops, as an invisible and sinister traveling companion.
Although he felt no discomfort, for the first time he was afraid of dying, a fear he did not even experience in the heat of battle when the bullets hit a span of his nose. Afraid, perhaps, of a useless death at the hands of a cunning and sneaky assassin.
He paused to rest. “This is going from bad to worse,” he said, resting the weight of his body on the shovel and wiping the sweat with a dirty and stiff handkerchief. “We are all going to die, everyone is going to die,” Abelardo replied with a broken voice, about to break. He said that without taking his eyes off the earth he was stirring, giving a brutal shovel.
Nicasio had the impression that Abelardo Murillo was also devoured by fear. He was a big man, six feet tall, with strong muscles and penetrating eyes, who had spread terror in the ranks of the filibusters with his bayonet. On the handle of his weapon was a faithful record of the dead he caused to the enemy and those he had irreversibly wounded. A dozen knife notches.
“We have to go,” Abelardo added.
“That we have to go, get away from this mortality. Maybe that way we can save ourselves.”
“To desert?” Nicasio described the proposal, “that would be to desert.”
“Drop out of what? Didn’t you see how the bosses came out on top? They only left Cañas and Salazar. And the other officers are all dying, like Alfaro.”
“I do not agree,” Nicasio replied. “I don’t think running away is correct, even if what you say is true.”
“Okay, okay,” agreed the other. It was just an idea, let’s not make a powder keg.”
The bodies were buried and the column continued its march. At some point, Nicasio lost sight of his partner and never heard from him again. Years later, someone assured him that he had fallen ill on the road and that he died near Bagaces, very far from his longed-for home in San José.
That was only the beginning of what was to come. The number of sick soldiers multiplied uncontrollably, making the march slow and tortuous. There was no longer a way to provide soldiers with the comfort of a cot to die well. Doctors folded their arms, unable to heal any longer or to give relief, powerless and incredulous in the face of the devastating force of the plague.
The chaplains, who made exhausting days, were no longer enough to impart the holy ointment. Nor was the energy of the healthy enough to find and inhume the victims, so that many bodies were left in any corner, where they fell to never get up again.
Fear turned into uncontrollable panic when two of the priests, Bruno Córdoba and Manuel Basco, succumbed to the disease. Not even the men of God were safe from that apocalyptic demon. The march then became desperate. At the tip of the spine, the men began to run, certain that death followed closely behind, brandishing his scythe.
Many weapons and cargoes were being thrown onto the road. They had to pace away at any cost. Colonel Lorenzo Salazar, who commanded the vanguard, made attempts to avoid the stampede but they were useless, there was not a hint of military discipline.
President Mora could not conceive the magnitude of the tragedy, not even when they came to tell him that Adolfo Marie had become ill and that he had been carted to Liberia. He found him prostrate in the large house that served as a hospital, still conscious but plagued by unspeakable torments. His gaze greeted him with the usual affection, but extinguished at the bottom of watery cavities. He held out an extremely slim hand. The President held it briefly between his own but there was a terrifying cold in it.
Marie smiled and a trickle of voice escaped his pale lips. “Don’t worry, Don Juanito. As you always say, bad weed never dies.”
“That’s what my enemies say,” said Mora. “I’m just saying they say it.”
Marie tried to make a comment but his voice didn’t come out anymore and he only agreed with a slight shake of his head.
The president accompanied him for a few minutes and then said goodbye with a phrase of encouragement, not knowing if he was listening. Marie was staring blankly and complaining very faintly.
That same night what remained of the troops arrived in Liberia and the spectacle was devastating. The most seriously ill came piled up in the same carts that transported weapons and supplies, the least walked with the help of sticks or on the shoulders of their comrades. The healthy, who were carrying a cumulation of hunger and fatigue of several days and barely managed to support the weight of the rifle or the backpack with their personal belongings.
Entering the city, the soldiers dropped by any door or window through which a generous hand could extend a guacal with water or a banana leaf with some food. They came dirty and tattered and the horror of that journey was reflected in his lost eyes.
To be continued…Part III