Scourge of Raco de Oro
Monday, December 8, 1845
The sun was rising over the Rio Grande near Carlos Landing when Joe Gerry and his sidekick, Sam Wilson, approached the ferryboat tied along the shore. Sam shook his head while studying the weather-beaten, old raft, and the equally ancient man who was to pilot them across the river.
"You sure about this, Joe," said Sam. "Only one old man, a leaky boat, and a mile of water between here and there. And that boat looks older than me, and hell, Joe, I'm thirty-five."
Joe laughed. "You worry too much, Sam."
"What if it sinks?"
Joe extended a hand toward the pilot. "Explain it to him, Carlos."
Carlos turned to Sam. "If my little boat sinks, we get out and walk," he said, laughing. "What else can we do, Señor?"
"Not to fret, Señor. This little barco loves me too much to sink. Would I go in it if I didn't expect to see my family tonight?" Carlos gently stroked the side railings. "She takes to the water like a duck and swims us there... And me back home. So, don't you worry none."
Sam's concerns somewhat eased, he turned to Joe. "Alright... After a month dogging after smelly old cows, I figured unwinding somewhere. But Mexico? Geez, Joe. And Roca de Oro to boot. What the hell is in Roca de Oro?" Before Joe answered his question, Sam knew the trip somehow involved a woman, a girlfriend maybe.
"I'll tell you once we get across."
Sam shook his head. Knowing Joe's tastes, she had to be young and pretty with an ample bosom.
Father Ortega, the fifty-three-old priest of Iglesias de Dios, Roca de Oro, awoke early and brewed a pot of coffee. He stirred one spoonful of sugar in a cupful, hoping to take off its bitter edge but quickly added a second spoonful after one taste. While bathing and sipping his drink, he hummed an uplifting tune.
Behind his back, a rat foraged in the open sugar bowl. It scratched into the sugar and licked the granules of sweetness from its whiskers and paws. When it heard Father Ortega returning, it scurried and hid.
After another cup of coffee and more sugar, he made breakfast, ate, and finished dressing. Dancing, light-footed around his tiny, one-room dwelling, he envisioned a larger than usual attendance at the mass celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe. If all the new faces at Sunday's mass was a barometer, it should be a record turnout.
Father Ortega whistled and offered tidbits to the parrots patiently awaiting breakfast outside his window. He glanced toward the river and noticed the ferry-raft approaching the landing. Two men struggled to constrain their horses on the wobbly watercraft.
"Holy crap, Joe. If I ever set foot on solid ground, I'm gonna..." exclaimed Sam, trying to keep his horse under control. "I'm gonna kick your butt for talking me into this trip."
Joe didn't bother to answer.
The raft slammed into the embankment, nearly knocking man and beast alike off their footings.
"Trying to kill us?" asked Sam, wiping the nervous sweat off his brow.
"No, Señor," said the old man. "She would never do that to me."
"Your woman better be worth it, Joe."
"She is," said Joe, laughing.
When they walked through the cantina door, Sam dropped his saddlebag on the tiled floor. "Geez, Joe. I wasn't expecting the Taj Mahal, but this place..."
"Shut up, Sam. It's got side benefits."
"Couldn't bribe anyone enough to pass this joint."
"Shut up while I'm looking."
Then a woman, mid-twenties, long black hair, shapely waist and hips, and ample bosom turned toward them. Immediately, her face lit up when she recognized Joe.
"José," she yelled. "You've come back to me." She rushed to hug him.
"Rosa, I've missed you too," said Joe, holding his outreached arms ready to hug her back.
"Who's your amigo?" asked Rosa, stopping short of Joe.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Señor Sam." Then she turned to Joe and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her melon-sized breasts against him. "Staying longer this time?"
"Maybe till next year," said Joe, chuckling.
Rosa punched Joe's shoulder. "Such a clown, my José. No?"
"Thought we'd celebrate with the town and get me some loving all in one trip."
"Loving, I got plenty for you. No? I make your eyes spin and wish you never leave me again."
"How about some now?"
"Si, José, now. Come with me." She took Joe's hand and led him to the nearby stairs.
"Check us in, would you, old pal?" asked Joe, grinning from ear to ear.
Sam shook his head and registered. "Two rooms."
Fernando, the cantina owner, assigned their rooms. "Señor?"
"You want I should find a woman for you?"
Blood rushed up to Sam's neck and into his cheeks, and he turned a bright red. "Uh... No thanks, Señor. I'll just wait for them."
"Rosa may be a while with José. Maybe, someone to talk to? Perhaps a companion to pass the time with while you visit our fine community?"
"Sure... Sure. A companion. If it wouldn't be much trouble."
"No trouble at all, Señor. I have many daughters."
Friday, December 12, was a holy church day, and Father Ortega had much to do. He had retired the night before, all excited with anticipation and expecting people from surrounding districts at mass since it was the annual celebration of the appearance of the Virgin Mother in 1531. "Besides, who could resist a parade and fireworks?" he thought
But he awoke with a splitting headache, and his nightshirt was damp from sweat. Father Ortega tried to ignore these symptoms while he quickly bathed, dressed, and ate. After feeding his beloved parrots, he left for the church.
Father Ortega passed and greeted several people before reaching the misión. When he raised his hand to grasp the large iron door-rings, sharp pains in the back of his head caused him to stumble. He leaned against the rough adobe building while the throbbing pain from the back to the front of his brain nearly triggered a blackout spell. Instantly, his body was drenched with sweat, and his knees were weak.
"Mother of God, what's happening to me?" he thought.
When the pain subsided, the sweating stopped, and Father Ortega regained his composure, he opened the door and entered the church to prepare for the mass. With great care, Father Ortega poured wine into a silver goblet, blessed it, and covered the cup with an embroidered cloth. He took a loaf of bread, broke it in half, blessed it, put it on a silver tray, and covered it with an embroidered cloth.
"Damn, Rosa, you're beautiful, all dressed up. Where you going so early?"
"Forget the mass and come back to bed."
"No, José. Morning communion. Afternoon celebration. Tonight, we love."
In the next room, Sam stirred. "I like waking up with a warm woman next to me."
"So... You like, Señor?"
She leaned over and kissed him, then hopped out of bed and quickly started dressing. Rosa stuck her head in the room.
"Ready, Maria? We can't be late for the mass today of all days."
"You go, I'll catch up."
Later, the men shuffled into the cantina and chose a table overlooking the courtyard. "Well, Señores?" asked Fernando.
"Best night, ever," said Joe.
"And you, mi amigo?"
"Maria is a lovely young woman."
"Maria?" asked Joe. "Who's Maria?"
"The most beautiful woman I've ever laid eyes on. And she knows how to satisfy a man's desires."
"Well, you lucky so and so."
"If you pay for the rooms, buy meals and drink from me, you can have the women as long as you stay. Por una pequeña carga. What you say, Señores?"
"What's that there 'por una' he's saying?" asked Sam.
"We can have the women for a small extra charge. Same as last time."
Joe looked at Sam, and Sam looked back.
"Deal," said Joe. Sam nodded approval.
Across town, more worshipers than usual attended the mass this year. Father Ortega was pleased to see their smiling faces, especially the children. But the service was taking its toll on him: his headache returned, and he was sweating more than before. His eyes were tearing, and his nose was running.
Father Ortega lifted the goblet toward the cross. "This is the blood of Jesus, our Savior, the Son of God, and the Son of the Blessed Mary. Drink in remembrance of His shed blood on the cross." He brought the cup to his lips and drank as his saliva and nasal mucus mixed with the wine. He took the bread and held it up. "This the body of Christ. Eat it in remembrance of His broken body on the cross." He tore off a piece of bread and ate it. The sweat of his hands coated the loaf halves.
As worshippers came forward to receive communion, each drank from the goblet, and Father Ortega ripped a portion from the loaves with his sweaty fingers and gave it to them. Rosa and Maria were the last two wanting to receive the elements. By then, he was exhausted and didn't care that their reputations as la prostitutas should've excluded them from communication. He sighed, gave them the wine and bread, and reluctantly blessed them. His headache was throbbing too much to do otherwise.
Father Ortega made his way to the first row of benches and sat.
"Father, are you coming to the parade?" the children asked, crowding around him.
Father Ortega patted them on their heads and kissed their foreheads. "No, my children, I'm not feeling well today, and I must go home and rest."
"Alright, Father, but you'll miss all the fun," said a small boy next to him.
"Yes, yes, I know. But you go and have lots of fun for me."
The children found their parents, and everyone filed out of the chapel to see the parade. Father Ortega waved and blessed them as they left.
Father Ortega got up and leaned against the altar, his condition was deteriorating by the moment. To save time, he took a shortcut through the large cornfield between the church and his house. Father Ortega was midfield when an excruciatingly sharp pain behind his eyes brought him to his knees. He grabbed his head and screamed, but no one heard his cries.
Vomiting again, and again, the contents of his stomach emptied on the ground until he puked only bile. The spasms of his diaphragm impeded his breathing: he had coughed and coughed, exhaling without inhaling. Blood streamed from his bulging eyes and from his nose. At last, he inhaled and shrieked like his head had split in two. Throwing himself on the ground, he convulsed, trashing against the cornstalks until he died.
Truth Comes Out
The town awoke early on Saturday with fond memories of yesterday's celebration. Several parishioners queued up for confessions, but Father Ortega did not come to the chapel. A couple of townsfolk went to his house but could not find him there.
About nine, Joe and Sam wandered into the cantina and ordered breakfast.
Fernando served them with his usual smile. "Still enjoying the women, Señores? I can find others if you grow tired of them."
"No. Don't do that. Rosa and I... Well... We have something special going."
"Don't kid yourself, José. Rosa es solo otra puta."
"What's he saying, Joe?"
"He's calling Rosa a whore," said Joe, rising out of his chair.
"What about his daughter, Maria? What's he got to say about her?"
"Daughter? Fernando? He ain't got no daughters. At least none he'd claim."
"Then Maria's a..."
"Looks that way, old friend," said Joe, sitting back down. "We've both been had."
"Wait, Señores. What has changed? You have the best two women the town has to offer, and they are satisfying, no?"
"We don't like being tricked and made to look foolish, which we are. So, I'm for leaving," said Joe. "What about you, Sam?"
"After one more for the road?"
"What the hell. We're paid up for a few more days anyways."
"How is it that you didn't know about Rosa?"
"Shut up, Sam."
Where's Father Ortega
The worshipers assembled the next morning for Sunday mass. Father Ortega didn't show again, and his whereabouts remained a mystery. They waited for an hour then filed out of the chapel, confused, and frightened.
"What could have happened to the Father?" someone asked.
"Where should we look?" another asked.
At daybreak on Tuesday, Bayardo went to work his cornfield and found Father Ortega's body. He went for several men to help carry the Father's body to the chapel. A general state of mourning befell the town.
After they ate lunch, Joe and Sam mounted up. Rosa and Maria waved goodbye to them as they rode out of town. After boarding the ferryboat, Sam leaned to Joe. "That was one hell of a time. Count me in any time."
"What are friends for?"
The Plague Erupts
Five days later, Rosa awoke ill and died before sundown, choking on her vomit. Soon after that, Maria and several more people were at death's door and perished hours later, beset with uncontrollable coughing, vomiting, and convulsions. Fernando's seizures were exceptionally horrific, contorting his body, as he gasped his last breath at sunrise on the following Monday.
Panic swept through the town like wildfire. Some tried escaping into the countryside, but they died a few kilometers from the town square. When the regional army heard of the tragedy, they rushed to the village. By the time help arrived, all one hundred fifty-two citizens were dead, as were their animals and hundreds of rats.
Plague Carried to Texas
Meanwhile, after hitting every out-of-the-way watering-hole, Joe and Sam finally stopped at a saloon in Rio Rancho, Texas. They decided this was as good a place as any to await the official news of Texas Statehood and join the celebration. The room was packed, elbow to elbow, with barely enough space at the bar to order a beer.
When Sam tipped his brew back, the stabbing pain at the base of his brain almost caused his knees to buckle and to spill his drink. At the last moment, he caught hold of the bar's edge and righted himself.
"What wrong?" asked Joe.
"Headache. Stomach's queasy."
"Too much riding, not enough drinking," said Joe, laughing.
Sam tipped his beer back for another gulp and added his laughter to the din of the room. The second wave of nausea hit with such force that Sam's vomit splattered on several men and women standing nearby.
"What's happening to me, Joe?"
Then a searing pain behind his eyes dropped him like a rock. He convulsed and vomited, nonstop for several minutes. Everyone backed away and watched in horror as he started coughing so severely that he couldn't catch his breath. Tormented with unrelenting pain, Sam tried to cry out for help but didn't have the air to do so. At last, he gasped some air but vomited and inhaled his stomach's fluids while he thrashed about on the floor.
Within minutes, the saloon emptied, leaving Joe standing by helplessly watching his friend die. Soon, Sam caught one last gasp of air, exhaled, and was still. Two days later, Joe died the same horrible death. Within a week, forty-eight more men and women had succumbed, and then overnight, the plague vanished, but leaving people confused and frightened.