River of Souls: A Novel of the American Myth

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Pedro Cortez, son of a Taos horse rancher, finds himself caught up in the complex struggle of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) in Blum's loosely historical novel. The American army, confronted by Spanish patrons and Mexican nationals as well as Pueblo Indians in revolt, wages a confused, brief and bloody struggle for control of the Southwest. Pedro and his father attempt to hide their herd in the Sangre de Cristos, but they are betrayed by Indian friends and Cortez senior is killed, setting Pedro on the revenge trail. Falling in with Long John Hatcher and Louy Simonds, a couple of beaver-trapping rustics looking for adventure, Pedro also seeks vengeance on Black Hess, a Prussian known for the quickest blade and heaviest German accent in the Old West. His scores settled, Pedro (now called Pete) accompanies Hatcher and Simonds to the California gold fields, where sentimentality overtakes him in the form of true love and a herd of horses in the valley of his dreams. It is unfortunate for this potentially lively story--one that draws on a rich historical period--that the dialogue is so wooden and the dialect so strained. Blum counters the ignorant frontier-speak he puts in the mouths of his American characters with his own dull bid for political correctness. And while the extent of Blum's research is impressive, inaccuracies and inconsistencies erode the reader's faith. This first novel does, however, succeed in rendering the simultaneous uncertainty and gung-ho recklessness felt by the motley crew of early Western settlers. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780865342811
  • Publisher: Sunstone Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.31 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    Papa Cortez took the belt from the nail and, holding it in both hands, snapped it several times to clear the dust. The belt reflected gray and almost two generations of use in the slant of noon-day sun which lit it through the mica window of the adobe storage building. It had hung from a rusted horseshoe nail sunk into a piñon stud by Grandpa Cortez more than thirty years ago. Grandpa Cortez had died the year before. Now Papa Cortez was the Señor Cortez, known throughout the Valle de Taos as the Cortez.

    "Assume the position, Pedro," he said in Spanish to the boy standing before him in the shadows of the large room.

    "Si, Papa."

    The boy, now sixteen, turned his back to his father and pulled down his deerskin riding pants. He bent over and grabbed his ankles. Saddle calluses wrote of his boyhood across the pink of his rump.

    The belt still looks big, he thought, but not as big as it used to look.

    "In this country," his father said, "to risk the animal is to risk life itself. The animal must come first. You know it. Today you forgot. You raced her across the desert for foolish pride. Now the red mare is dead and with her, the many fine foals she would have dropped. Are you ready?"

    The boy shut his eyes, not to the pain, but to the humiliation. Five times the belt flashed across the slanted streak of sun.

    The thwack of the belt is still loud, he thought, but not as loud as before. The sharp sting was the same, and the shame which honed the stingwith each stroke. The boy did not hate the beating. It was just. It was a work of love that would make him strong. This he knew. This he would remember.

    "It is done," said Papa Cortez who smiled sadly but with pride in his eyes. He hung the belt on the rusted nail. "We will speak of it no more." Then he turned and walked from the room.

    Pedro felt the sting deepen as the blood-welts began to rise on his backside. Slowly, he stood up. Pain wrinkled the desert lines already forming at the corners of his black eyes. I am sad for the red mare, he thought, and for the pain I have caused my father. Beneath the glowing rump and the shame, he felt a sense of joy which he did not understand, but accepted as natural, taking love for granted.

    Pedro pulled his pants up slowly. Suddenly, he laughed with a groan, put his hand gently to his behind, felt the welts become ridges. He wrapped the red sash around his slim waist. The slant of sun through the gray dust of the mica-paned window lit the left side of his tanned face and bounced back from Spanish eyes.

    He looked at the belt for the last time. Sweat dripped from the tip of his pointed nose and spilled into the black sheen of his carefully trimmed mustache. He bent over, picked up the wide brimmed leather hat from the dirt where it had fallen. Pedro ran a steady hand through satin black hair and crowned his broad shouldered, six foot frame. The laugh-groan had settled into a wry smile across firm lips.

    It is tomorrow, he thought, that we move the horse herd from El Valle de Taos to the high mountains. To hide them from the American soldiers. Three days, maybe more, in the saddle. He imagined the all-day saddle hammer pounding the welt-ridges into rump-mountains and groaned again.

* * *

    "It is done, then," said Mama Cortez as Papa Cortez walked into the cocina and tossed his flat crowned hat onto a hook against the wall. She spoke Spanish with a Missouri twang.

    "Si." Papa looked at his wife and smiled. "It is not an easy thing to whip the boy who is almost a man."

    "Man? Why he is still a child. My child," said Mama. She did not return the smile as she turned her back to stir the seasoned beef steaming in the large iron skillet.

    "He is but a boy. He does foolish boy things. Sometimes wild things. You have hurt him for being a boy?" Her tone was not accusing; but a mother's sad voice.

    "From the belt, a boy will grow, as I did, to manhood."

    Papa Cortez put a hand on Mama's shoulder and gave her a gentle squeeze. She reached up and patted his hand.

    "Not so soon," is all she said.

    "I think, Mama, it is already too late. Today, I think I whipped a man. Pedro raced the mare against Montoya's Indian pony. The mare broke a leg in a snake hole. When I came upon him, he was standing, over the mare. Montoya stood behind him with that Indian smirk on his face. When I rode up, the Indian stopped his sneering laugh, gave me a sullen look.

    "The horse squealed with the pain of her broken leg. With only a moment's hesitation, Pedro slit the vein in her neck. I saw the sadness in his eyes; but there were no boyish tears. He had done what a man had to do, like a man."

* * *

    As Pedro emerged from the adobe shed, he saw his younger sister, Anna, strike the iron triangle hanging from one of the vigas or roof beams which protruded from the adobe roof of the portal which shaded the entire front of the Cortez ranch house. It was dinner time.

    Anna stood by the wide, solid piñon-log door with hands on hips and watched Pedro approach.

    "Did the belt bite?" she asked with a toss of curly, auburn hair which framed a heart-face puffed by Spanish cheeks. A year younger than Pedro, she laughed a teen-woman laugh. Pedro saw feigned concern in the set of her soft lip line; but from the flash of black cat eyes flecked with green, he knew she was more than amused.

    "You will know soon enough," he laughed. And they both laughed, knowing that Anna had never felt the sting of the belt. Its lesson was not for girls.

    Pedro washed hands and face at the bucket which sat on a sideboard near the door and they went into the cool interior of the house. A large room served as both a living and eating space. Papa Cortez was already seated at the head of the long, oak table that, more than a hundred years before, had graced a room in the Cortez family home in Malaga, Spain.

    "Sit, sit, children." The woman said this as she brought a steaming tray of food from the rear of the house, placed it on the table and took the high-backed wooden chair at the end of the table opposite her husband. The woman's hair was auburn, like the daughter's; but her eyes were Missouri blue.

    When all were seated, Papa Cortez bowed his head. "Bless this food to our use and us to thy service. We ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

    With a soft amen all around, Mama Cortez took a large tortilla of unbolted flour from the tray and spooned a helping of chili colorado over it. The tray was passed around the table. Papa filled a glass for each with wine. They ate in silence as was the custom for people whose meals were spanned by long hours of work in fields and on horseback.

    Papa drained the last of the wine from his glass and picked up the clay pipe which lay on a sideboard. At the other end of the table, Mama rolled tobacco into a thin shuck of corn about three inches long. From a pocket in her skirt, she pulled a long, tin tube from the end of which hung a bit of cotton. She struck flint to steel and in a moment, the cotton tip was aflame. She lit her cigarillo and passed the tube to Papa who lit his pipe with the same flame. A sweet scented smoke soon rose above the table to greet the ceiling vigas.

    "We Mexicans must be thought a singular people," said Papa Cortez through a wreath of smoke.

    "Why, Papa?" said Pedro as he shifted his rump on the seat of the wooden chair.

    "It has been only three months since the Americans came. Three months since Governor Armijo...."

    "That mountain of fat," said Mama quietly as she brushed ash from the front of her low-necked chemise.

    "... demanded all of our horses, even those of our poor rancheros, those Indios who risk scalping and a parched or frozen death to safeguard our herds in the desert wilds, for the army to oppose the Americans. Only the rich Mexicans of Santa Fe favored war with the Americans. What care we, who must fight for a living from the land, that we are ruled and oppressed by a fat Mexican or a fat American. Yet, when Governor Armijo called for war, all New Mexicans shouted `Viva!'"

    "But Fat Armijo fled," said Pedro. "In August, he made a fort in Apache Canyon; but, at first sight of the Americans, he ran."

    "Is still running, I think." Papa Cortez laughed.

    "So," said Pedro, "the Americans took Santa Fe without firing a shot."

    "And, in that way, they conquered all of New Mexico."

    The pipe had gone out and Papa put it down.

    "In the eyes of the Americans, we must appear a singular, cowardly people. Now, when we greet them in the street or at the fandango, we smile and call them amigos."

    "Surely Govenrnor Bent will carry out the promise of the American general," said Mama. "The Bents have lived here in Taos for many years. His wife is one of us, you see.

    "Last August in Santa Fe the American general stood on the roof top and said, `yesterday you were Mexicans. Today you are all Americans.' And the people, the women, who had expected rape and branding, cheered."

    "Then," said papa wistfully, "the Mexican governor was after our horses. Now, in December, it is the American army which tries to take them."

    "But, the Americans promise to pay for them," said Mama.

    "In paper; not coin. Paper that may never be honored by the American government. That man who came here the other day."

    "Sergeant Hess," said Anna. "Black Hess, he said his name was, his face peppered black. I did not like him."

    "Nor did I," said Papa Cortez.

    "He offered you ten dollars a head for the horses," said Mama. "Everyone knows the Americans offer to pay twenty dollars. `Take the ten or your horses, we will just up and take; and you be damned.'"

    Mama used English better to imitate the strange accent of the soldier.

    "When you ordered him off the rancho, I thought this Hess would hit you or worse.

    "Mama, for us, one oppressor is pretty much like another."

    "This American oppressor will be back for the horses, I think," said Mama with a slight shudder of her shoulders.

    Papa Cortez shot her a wise look and turned to Pedro.

    "In the morning, we will take our horses to the high mountains where the soldiers will not find them. Go now, my son. Prepare the Indios for the long ride. Pick two good mules for yourself and for me. Until the horses are safe, it will be cold tortillas and cold beans for us."

    "What of the Comanches, the Navajos?" said Pedro. "Since the conquest, they have become bolder, have raided many of the ranchos, killed, stolen."

    "Our own riders can fight. They are Pueblo Indians. As fierce as any from the plains. Still, son, you are right. Nothing in this country is without risk. My hair is not so thick any more; but yours...." They both laughed, then Papa grew serious. "In Santa Fe, the soldiers have just arrested many who would start an uprising against the American invaders. Mexicans—and many Pueblos."

    "Our own mestizos would not...."

    "When the blood of a whole people is aroused, we must watch for sign. Watch." Papa paused in thought.

    "Our backsides." said Pedro quietly.

    Mama and Anna jumped up and, with quick movements, began to clear the table.

Chapter Two

    Montoya squatted in greasy buckskins and worn moccasins by the fire chewing a last piece of roasted antelope. He could tell from the night sounds that the horse herd was grazing peacefully. As he chewed, his hands rubbed the cutting edge of an arrowhead over and over across the thick piece of cowhide. This one was the last of some twenty arrows whose heads he had honed for war.

    Of his five Indian companions, two were out with the horses, two slept and one picked between the small bones of the antelope carcass with a razor sharp knife for the last of the meat.

    Montoya dropped the last honed arrow into his quiver and fingered the solid wood kachina which hung from a thong around his neck. It was his totem; and, with it, he saw the future in the rising puffs of smoke from the dying fire.

    He stood as a new sound caught his ear from out of the night. The walk of a horse, not loose, but ridden. His small, black eyes pierced the darkness in the direction of the sound. His nostrils flared to the whiff of new dust.

    "Hola! El rancheria," sang a voice from the night.

    "Señor Pedro, called Montoya. "Venga."

    Montoya's nostrils narrowed and so did the eyes. A quick sneer came and went with the purse of dark lips.

    With a wave of the hand, Pedro entered the firelight.

    Montoya stared back, expressionless. He did not return the wave.

    The sleeping Indians were fully awake; but they did not move. Their bead-eyes watched Pedro dismount and warm his hands at the fire. The bead-eyes noted the two pistols in Pedro's sash and the musket on his saddle.

    Pedro motioned with a shake of the head and a smile to the Indian by the fire to off-load the pack mule. Then Pedro turned to Montoya.

    "How goes it?"


    "We move the herd in the morning, Montoya. Papa will be here with the sun. The pack mule has supplies for a week. See that the boys get some sleep. And yourself. You'll need it."

    Pedro pulled the saddle from his horse and spread his blanket near the fire.

    Montoya nodded; but stood his ground. He was a head taller than his Pueblo Indian companions and as tall as Pedro and thick in the shoulders and arms. The Navajos, who sometimes raided the Cortez rancho, knew him to be a fighter. So did Pedro. Although Montoya was only three years older, he had worked for Papa Cortez for as long as Pedro could remember.

    In that time Pedro had seen him fight as a man; and, in the early years, Pedro had fought him knuckle and thumb, as boys will fight. Pedro had heard him sing and watched him dance in the firelight; but had never seen him smile, except for the quick sneer.

    As Pedro settled down in his blanket, Montoya again squatted by the fire. He tossed several sticks on the fire and watched them catch the lingering fingers of flame and stretch them high into the dark. He caressed his kachina totem and saw the future in the rising sparks and smoke. He saw death in the rising sparks and smoke; and saw the killing. He saw horses prancing and biting writhing flanks and galloping up in the rising sparks and smoke. And, he saw lodges on a barren prairie and a Comanche woman, kneeling in the dust, chanting her death song in the rising sparks and smoke.

    While Pedro slept, Montoya followed the smoke until it disappeared in the dawn; and they both awoke to the rattle of Papa Cortez coming into camp.

    Pedro went to greet his father. Montoya watched the two white men, one his master for all of his life; the other his boyhood friend. He watched them embrace. His only expression was the quick sneer.

    Then Montoya kicked the other Indians out of their blankets.

    "It will be today," he signed with his hands. "I have seen it in the rising sparks and smoke."

    "When you have eaten, Montoya," said Papa Cortez. "We will begin. We must move the herd fast; drive them to safety in the high mountains."

    "Si, Señor Cortez," said Montoya.

    The quick sneer flashed and vanished.

Chapter Three

    Billy Slade pushed at the coils of the fire with a burning stick as he talked.

    "General Kearny, he says to Colonel Price, `I need horses for the advance to California. Two hundred of these fine Spanish horses'll do. Pay twenty dollars a head' says the general."

    Across the fire the large man with the blackened face listened.

    "Well, the colonel, he tells the lieutenant. The lieutenant says, `Cortez horses from up Taos way. They's the best in all of New Mexico.' I was there, Hess. I heard it all."

    "In script of the government, the army pays," said the man called Hess, getting up and stretching his huge frame. "Cortez said he would not sell."

    Slowly, Hess drew the saber from the scabbard he wore at his side, enjoying the sound of steel scraping on steel. He held the blade up to the firelight in a kind of salute.

   "Maybe it was that funny accent of your'n," said Slade.

    Instantly, Hess stepped through the fire and pinned Slade to the ground with the point of his curved saber.

    "The accent is Prussian. Funny it is not." Hess glared down at Billy Slade.

    "Ma-ma-manner of speakin," said Slade.

    He tried to push the blade of the saber from his chest, cut his hand on the razor-sharp edge. He looked up at Hess. He could hardly see the face in the firelight. The face was nearly as black as the night. In the dark of the face, Slade saw the dull shine of ice-blue eyes, bleak with killing scorn.

    "'Course it aint a ha ha kinda fu-fu-funny," he said, trying to find a lifesaving word. "Di-di-different is all."

    Slowly, Hess withdrew the blade from Slade's chest. He held the steel up to the light and watched the burn of reflected flame cut the dark like the burn of lightning skips across a night sky.

    Still holding the saber up to the light, Hess said, "I come from the best. I am a Prussian. My father was a general. Napoleon, he fought. At Waterloo, he won. I was born with this blade in my hand."

    Hess pulled his shirt sleeves up from hairless wrists and lowered his arms into the firelight.


    Both thick forearms were ridged with scar tissue.

    "It is how we played as children, young men, with the blade."

    His face was in the light and Slade could see the ice of his eyes and the patches of gray over his cheeks, nose and forehead which made his face look black.

    "If me and you are to work this thing of buying horses low and selling to the army at a profit, you must know of me, something." Hess slid the saber into the ornamented scabbard at his side and sat down beside Slade.

    "No, Hess. I aint got to know nothin you don't...."

    "If you want to live, listen." Hess cut the Missouri man with a saber hand, chopping. "You have stared at the black of my face. No, do not deny. By the black of my face am I known. Schwarz Hess, Black Hess, am I called. When I was fifteen, a dog I had."

    Hess let his arctic eyes wander into the fire of time.

    "My dog had gotten old, like my father; but the dog was mine! One winter day, my old dog was lying in a spot of sun which sometimes warmed the cold stone floor of the great den in which my father spent his last years. Over the dog, my father stumbled. At my father, the dog growled.

    "My father took a pistol from the many he kept loaded on the wall of the great den which was ornamented with his souvenirs of the wars. He cocked the pistol and handed it to me. `The dog, shoot it so it will not growl at me,' he said. `No!' I said. He struck me on the face. I pointed the pistol at my father and pulled the trigger. The pistol sprayed my face with burning powder."

    "Did she blow up on you?" said Slade.

    "At the time, I did not know. I could not see; the pain was nearly unbearable. Still, I heard my father fall. Even in the pain, I remember saying, `you, no one, will slap Helmut Hess, ever.'" Hess rubbed his face. "Now, because of this, I am Black Hess."

    "And your pa?"

    "Shot through the heart. Dead. The pistol was just over primed."

    "Your own pa, well, well. And over a slap in the face."

    "An affront, a blow struck. My father knew. By him was I taught. A blow must be answered."

    "All that 'cause of an old cur."

    "The dog? Any other dog, I would have killed. But, this dog. He was mine!"

    "Killed your own pa and got away with it?"

    "Got away. From Prussia. Took ship in Holland. Jumped ship in New Orleans. Robbed my way up the river to Saint Louis. Killed many an innkeeper with this." Hess patted the saber. "Took what little they had, used their women. Them I also put out of the way; but more slowly."

    He did not grin or smile, even; and yet, Slade thought, at least a smile was intended, though the black face seemed incapable of it.

    "In Missouri, I stayed. Fought Mormons in '36 and until they moved on. When this war came up, the army I joined. The Second Missouri. I joined to carve Mexicans; but fight, they do not. This army, I am tired of."

    "So we make us some money from government script and Mexican horses." Slade was smiling. He shoved another log on the dwindling fire.

    "Now you understand," said Hess quietly. "I am, what shall I say, sensitive. Ja. A sensitive man. Not funny. Funny, not at all."

    "Touchy," said Slade. "A mite touchy is all. Old Billy Slade'll remember."

    "It is good. In the morning, we will buy horses at ten and, to the army, sell them at twenty."

    "Or, just take 'um—for nothin. If'n the old Hex shuns us, we'll have to kill him."


    "Two hundred horses. Fine Spanish blood."

    Hess put a scared hand on the hilt of his saber. "Horses of Cortez!"

    Billy Slade looked over at Hess.

    "The woman and the girl. Handsome. Both handsome females."

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Interviews & Essays

From the Author

In writing River of Souls, I read over 100 histories, biographies and diaries. I traveled the route of the Santa Fe Trail to Kansas and back and the California gold country from top to bottom. I may have selected a view of history, here and there, particularly from personal diaries, with which some may disagree; but the historical facts are, so far as I know, supportable. If you find errors or inconsistencies, e-mail me at river@lightspeed.net; but please remember, your view of history or mine may not be the only viable ones. I've used at least six distinct dialects for the characters in the book. Some are purposely exeggerated for effect. After all, this is a novel of the American myth. I've tried to give each major character his her own voice. The Westerner of 1846 was, by and large, uneducated; and even those with schooling soon adopted the local idiom. Dialect may make the characters sometimes sound ignorant. What they say is not.

In Book III, "The Deadliners," starting on page 185, I soon introduce an escaped slave who calls himself Dibble (devil). From the very beginning, he took over his own being from me and I let him run. I made no attempt at anything political with this or any other character; and if'n I'd-a tried, he'd-a shot me sure. The bad guys refer to Dibble by the 'N' word just as everyone did back then, and so does Dibble call himself. Dibble is as real to me as my own kids. I hope you like him as much as I do. Please read River of Souls and make up your own mind...just for fun!
— Ivon B. Blum (river@lightspeed.net), the Author

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2000

    Story telling at it's best

    I hated for this book to end. I truly felt alone when I reached the last page. The characters had become etched into my conscious much like that of long time friends and I hated to see them go when the book was finished. For the two weeks that I read the book I felt like I was experiencing life as it must have been in the SouthWest around 1850. The section on prospecting for gold in 1848 was brilliantly done; gritty, real,adventurous and insightful. I get the feeling Mr. Blum did a tremendous amount of research before writing this book - the details are incredibly precise yet colorful and dramatic. It will be our good fortune if Mr. Blum turns out another novel of this calibre. I for one hope that happens soon!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2000

    Fast-paced and compelling!

    River of Souls is a fascinating and engaging read. The characters are well-defined and will linger in your mind, long after you turn the final page. This story of greed, betrayal, and murder reflect the turmoil and violence of the 1840's - a time when it was commonplace to lie, cheat and steal to gain control of land, and an honest man's possesions - they didn't call it the 'wild west' for nothing! And southwest history was as stained with bloodshed as any other area in those times. Cortez, Long John Hatcher, Louy Simonds, the murderous Black Hess, Beckey with her 'true grit' and the kind slave 'Dibble'-all are memorable characters that lend perspective and depth to the historical facts of the Taos Revolt, and more than a glimpse of the rough journeys down the Santa Fe Trail. The stuff of big screen westerns!

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