“The Promised War”, Part 3
Of the 2,500 soldiers who left San José, marching and singing with patriotic fervor, on March 5, only about 400 remained. It was the estimate that Colonel Lorenzo Salazar made without taking the trouble –because he believed it useless and otherwise idle– to make an accurate count of troops, irretrievable. Many had been killed by bullets from the filibusters in Rivas, but most had been killed by cholera and the rest had deserted looking for a place to hide from the plague.
“What about Cañas?” Don Juanito asked.
“The general came in the rear. He asked me to go forward with those who could walk here and he told me that he would stay to attend to the sick and collect the weapons that have been scattered at the border”, Salazar explained.
“What has happened, Colonel?” Asked the President, “How did we get to this?”
He was stunned, emotionally disordered in such proportions that he did not know whether to cry or go outside to comfort his troops or simply to run like the others, to flee his own confusion.
Among all the disaster scenarios he foresaw before leaving for war, none had this apocalyptic aspect. He never thought that fate would forge such a malevolent irony, that it would bring such a sweet victory to its people, and then punish them with such an atrocious scourge.
What would he say to the thousands of women who expected to see their sons and husbands arrive triumphant? How would he confront those who opposed the war, those who warned that the country should not cross its border and asked only to protect the sovereignty of the national territory itself? How could he convince everyone that it was not patriotic ardor, or men’s military capabilities, or even resources that had failed?
Salazar shrugged his shoulders. He also could not explain why the Divine Providence had poured so much tribulation on a people that did nothing else but defend its right to exist. What did the sin consist of, for such punishment?
It was all absurd. He did not even know if he would be alive tomorrow to continue witnessing the downfall, but at that moment he felt more sorry for Don Juanito Mora than for anyone else, including himself. “No one could blame you for what has been a whim of fate, a completely unpredictable situation,” Salazar said.
The following morning, after a night of insomnia and untold anguish, the President received the news that Adolfo Marie had passed away. His body would be buried as soon as he arrived at the cemetery, they informed him, if it was his desire to attend a brief and simple ceremony.
As he dressed, a sadness so deep came to him, that he almost went back to bed and declared a rebellion against life. He had known Marie was to succumb, he had known it ever since he watched Marie’s eyes go dark and his hand communicated a cold catacomb to his. But facing the fait accompli was much more painful than anticipating it.
He dressed the best that was in his luggage: white shirt and a black suit of jacket and bowtie, despite the steam atmosphere that was beginning to form. With that dress, he would have to spend that day of mourning, an infamous decisions.
Marie, the European freethinker, who scandalized priests and the conservative local aristocracy, had arrived in the country some eight years ago, coming from Quito. He was a strong supporter of Latin American independence, not in vain had he served in the government of Juan José Flores, the Ecuadorian general who fought alongside Simón Bolívar.
He possessed a privileged prose and a culture so vast that he soon captivated President Mora, whom he also served with unalterable loyalty. For three years he had held the post of Deputy Minister of Foreign Relations. Mora noted all of Marie’s virtues in a minimal but emotional speech at the burial and then returned to the Army’s general command in the hope that Cañas had returned. He was afraid of losing him too, that another bad news would come in his place.
General José María Cañas knelt on a nest of stones by the side of the road. He was exhausted. In the past four days he had buried more than two hundred men, in many cases helping with his own hands to dig the makeshift graves or to put in the bodies. He distributed spiritual aid to the dying when the priests had also died, while at the same time raising the census of the deceased and organizing the recovery of weapons and supplies. He had barely slept and hardly had eaten in those four days of infamous journey.
“How far to go?”
“Two or three leagues, my general,” replied Captain Matías Sáenz, sitting next to him. He had been at his commander’s side inch by inch and felt exhausted, too.
“Everything that is happening is so terrible that I am not sure I want to get to Liberia. I’m even scared of having to report to the president,” Cañas confessed.
“The report is simple, my general. The army no longer exists and the reason is also simple: it has been crushed by the enemy”.
“Not by the filibusters,” Cañas reasoned, “but by the cholera.”
“Sometimes I wonder if cholera wasn’t Walker’s secret weapon. Surely he took it to Rivas.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right, what Walker didn’t manage to do with the bullets, he finally did it with the plague.”
“What I don’t understand is how Walker manages to keep his army together, if he has obviously had the same problem as us and for much longer,” Saenz wondered.
Cañas stopped to think about it and came to a conclusion that made his skin stand on end.
“The difference is that Walker’s army is made up of adventurers, they are very far from their country and from their homes, if they get sick or want to desert, they have nowhere to go. And constantly reinforcements arrive to replace those who die. I suppose that when recruiting them, back in the United States, nobody informed them of the epidemic.”
“You are right, general, to who they going to inform?, They have no one to”.
“And that is what terrifies me, Captain Saenz. If Walker found out what is happening to our army, he would not hesitate to invade us again. He still has the ability to do it. And what would we do in such a circumstance? Currently, we could not mobilize even five hundred of these men. Organizing a new expedition from San José would be almost impossible… PART IV