Chalk's Woman

Chalk's Woman

by David Ballantine

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Overview

David Ballantine's debut novel Chalk's Woman, is a story about freedom, liberation, and love. Set in the violent backdrop of the waning months of the Civil War, Chalk's Woman addresses violence and redemption as seen through the eyes of a girl maturing into a woman.

Ann, a fourteen-year-old girl, wakes up after a terrible explosion in a make-shift hospital during the waning months of the Civil War--her house no longer stands and her mother is dead, and a young Dr. Frazier amputated her arm in order to to prevent infection. . Homeless and an orphaned, Ann feels her only option is to travel west.

She leaves Vicksburg on the Santa Fe Trail and meets a troupe of orphaned children like herself and joins up with them. Together they fight against the hardships of the wild frontier: abominable weather, savage Indians, and starvation all the way to Kansas where they meet and, much to his chagrin, fall in love with Chalk.

Chalk's not the nicest of men, and he sure does have a drinking problem, but from the moment Chalk and Ann see each other, they know their lives will forever be entwined.



At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466801226
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 12/09/2001
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 350 KB

About the Author

David Ballantine lives in Bearsville, New York.

Read an Excerpt



Chalk's Woman

1
 

 

Large wars have small, important corners, where the damage that they do can sometimes be repaired. A flat wash of blackness lay underneath the bluffs down by the river. It was a part of the same night that filled the streets of the town, growing deeper beyond the entrenchments where forest stretched away forever. The dim horizon line throbbed as faint red flames flickered. This might have been summer lightning someplace far. Except, like shooting stars, the tracks of burning fuses flew, and when mortar bombs struck there was no distance left. Falling shells brought death into the town. Pemberton was trapped in Vicksburg, and so were all his men.
At first Ulysses S. Grant tried to wash over Pemberton's butternut boys, but the rebels stuck. The Union dead lay in windrows facing trenches they couldn't storm. The attacks would have to stop. New York and Ohio boys spoke hopefully, telling each other no general could keep on forever killing his own men. In this they were correct. Instead of attack it was siege, a sensible improvement. While digging was harder than dying, it was a thing men could complain about.
Now at last the Union troops were readied, the guns drawnclose so as to throw harsh iron against the fragile town. Porter's fleet of tin clads increased the devastation as they bombarded from the river. Burning fuses through the night gracefully arched the sky. Where they hit, houses, mules, and people died or got so broken it was an ugly shame. Staying was bad. Leaving was worse. Federals tightly ringed the town.
The dreary days of siege had turned from weeks into months of misery, and the invested city sensed its dying, hammered to death by Union guns.
A Vicksburg lady paused to watch a horse's agony--one slight wound in his sleek black side and at first the blood was only a dribble. The horse was tied to a tree. When he could not reach to gnaw his hurt he turned. The whole body arched to rake the tree's bark with his teeth. Such a little wound, yet so much pain.
Death came in so many different ways. The soldiers claimed they could hear from various whistles, shrieks, and screams which guns were turned against them. It didn't seem to matter much. A churning explosion destroyed a house or made a tiny gout of blood. There were so many ways to die.
On life's side, the woman thought, her clothes were clean and she had--she hefted them--two fine-formed apples in a parchment envelope. An officer had been kind to her. It was a gentleman's gesture amid these ruins. Suffering and death could be intolerable if men should lose their honor.
The owner of the wounded horse argued with three other men. It was only a little wound. Perhaps he would recover. One of his comrades had his pistol drawn, holding it without the hammer pulled so as to fire. The woman watched closely and noticed other soldiers, the tattered infantry, who were gathering one by one.
Once, when bands played, the horses were all sleek and fed and these men marched in proud straight ranks. How her heart had lifted to hear the battle hymns and see the companies stride by in springing step. Now, these men walked, one by one or two at atime. She sensed an aimlessness about them. It was because the siege was tight. There was no place to go. She looked for what those gray, empty faces might say. They were starving and had no expression as they waited for the horse to die.
The horse's blood was now flowing faster, but its agony remained the same. He did not fight the halter that held him to the tree. He fought at what had come to lodge inside him. Corded muscles whipped his body into huge arcs and arabesques. He could no longer find the tree to bite, so now the horse could only scream. These were screams a woman knew, the sounds of an infant's agony grown huge. The horse's owner was crying now, and the man with the revolver holstered it. An artillery man had his short sword drawn. He used it like an axe. The heavy blade flashed above his head. He had both hands to the scaled grip. The woman looked away to see ragged soldiers moving in on the kill. The horse's screaming stopped.
She walked along the broken street toward her undamaged home. There were no shells falling now. How long ago, or was it just last month, this war had been such gallant pageantry.
Then there had been Vesuvius fountains of fire in the night. At first alarm empty houses along the river, soaked with turpentine, had been turned into torches. Everyone--women, soldiers, and children--had come to see the huge black waterbugs of Porter's fleet spit sheets of flame as those Union gunboats ran the river down, past Vicksburg's protective batteries.
She had been at the grand ball. When the gun thunder started, her partner and all other men ran to be with their troops. Suddenly in that bright-lit hall only women in their ball gowns stood. She still kept that dance card with young officers' names inked beside dances never danced.
Everywhere men ran through the light-filled streets. The flares and flaming barns lit the river brightly until it was hard to see the winking flashes of the guns. The billowing smoke reflected muzzleflashes and a glare from the houses and ships that burned. One gunboat, like a child's toy in a roadside rivulet, was caught in the current and then whirled just beneath the batteries. Somehow its armor held, or the crew had the luck, for the ship floated free and fled down the river from her sight.
With clash and clatter, horse artillery arrived to set their guns up in the street. The roar was continuous. The guns would never sound so loud again.
She came back from her memories into the daytime street. The dead horse was hidden by a crowd of quietly struggling men. Two months ago the city had fought back against the gunboats in the river. Today it sat to suffer siege. Those silent men were frightening.
Her eyes returned to memories of the river. Then sparks shot skyward like a comet trail erupting from the ground. The gunners worked in a frenzy but one by one the armored boats fought through. As they did the city had one last, long breath to catch. Fires in the houses died and the river blackened to empty night. When sleep finally came to Vicksburg's people, they knew with sureness, defeat had started. Federal gunboats had run past their batteries.
The town's deeper caves were safe havens against huge mortars in the siege train of the Federals. Frightened people who had lost their homes cowered deep within them, and the army's main hospital had moved into the deepest one. Even the shallow caves were safe unless there, was what people, called a "lucky" hit. It was hard to remember which was which. As she hurried home from the death of the horse, the woman thought, lucky or unlucky for who or whom. The whos did the shooting and the whoms got hit. Once the cannon was discharged--This thought was interrupted. She stopped to stare at a neighbor's house. It had once been so like her own. Now there was just smoke-blackened shambles. Walking by she noticed broken, hanging beams. Three chimneys stood as though expectant, with thick rubble piled around their bases. She had always wondered how houses were made that they could holdtogether. What a complication of boards and beams. So long a time to build them up and how quickly blown and burnt to hell. She looked around to see if anyone had heard her think so coarse a word.
Inside her own house, all roughness of board and beam still hid behind smooth panelings and plaster. Her clean-scrubbed windowpanes winked back the light. She was sure to always have them polished clean. The chimney pots were like little hats and the chimney bodies were comfortably clothed by this building's walls. There was no need for a hearth fire now. The June day was already hot. She called for Ann. Then she saw some movement. It was merely the black girl. "Where's Ann? I mean to say, where is Miss Ann?"
"She be still up the stairs and lying in her room."
Mrs. Baxter's feet were quiet on the carpet-covered stairs. Ann's door was open and she was reading, stretched out on her bed. "You are late abed, Ann, my dear, but certainly with the shades drawn down this room is cool."
Ann wondered if she'd heard a statement, a question, or an order.
"With no food for the belly, Mother, I thought to feed my mind."
"The word most proper, Ann, is stomach." Mrs. Baxter now looked at the book, holding its pages to where a sun's ray had escaped the lowered shades. "Ann, dear, there is fine kilted romance where the Highlands run. I wonder what Mister Scott would have to say of here. For later I have," Mrs. Baxter held up the parchment envelope, "something very pleasant for both of us to eat."
"A package of flour for johnnycake, or have you found a piece of meat?"
"Neither. Apples, two apples. One for each of us."
"Apples, Mother," the girl answered slowly. "What a strange thing to eat when one is starving."
 

 

Within the Federal siege line soldiers stuffed brush and logs to corduroy across a sea of mud. Mosquitoes there hungered more for blood than soldiers did for beans. Railroad tracks had been laid to almost everywhere. Without the tracks and the puffing engines that ran along them they could not have ever brought the huge mortars to position. At the emplacements, bombs were piled all around, some empty and the filled ones off by themselves, all readied for their firing.
A bearded sergeant from Vermont cautioned his crew. "Now you swab down good when that gun's had its shot. There's many dead in the artillery whose only sin was pouring powder on a spark."
Boys from Ohio looked around. They'd never seen a mess like this.
"It seems the shame to plow that place so harshly with our guns."
"Shame for what? We didn't start the war."
"That's my words too," a third man said. "The shame is, this siege will be over soon. Then there'll be work enough for everyone." He pointed to the piled shells. "Why in the hell carry them back to the riverboats again? If you have an ass for breaking, just you go ahead, but you do it by yourself. I say let's shoot off every last son-of-a-bitching one. And don't feel bad. I do have doubts if out there," he pointed across the mortar's muzzle to the town, "anything is still alive to kill."
In the late afternoon orders came and the batteries all started up at once. They flung those shells so fast as shucked corn in a barn. The piled pyramids seemed to melt away. With nightfall, the bombardment slackened. Fresh shells would doubtless come up on the train. Firing only occasional shots, the mortar men could load and wait. In their exhaustion they wondered if and when they would be resupplied. If they'd shot through the afternoon this hard, what would they do next week, for Independence Day?
 

 

All day long clusters of oil lamps and flickering candles burned to illuminate the far recess of a bomb-proof cave where time had stopped. Every twinkle of light was needed where the surgeon worked. In some cases ambulances came quickly and then raced away again. But most of the horses, weakened and half starved, pulled their conveyances at a walk. One slave who still wore his master's tattered livery held back his lively team. He thought it lacked dignity to ride dead and dying men at a gallop.
Women bearing candles walked with care through the close crowd of wounded that spread across the floor. There were no beds. Some were on litters, which were just canvas stretched on sticks. Even these were in short supply and most of the wounded lay on piled straw. A candle was held close to see a man who'd died in his island of silence. Right next to him, another screamed out in hopeless agony. The walls dripped moisture to mix with the greased mud on the floor, and blood seeped or flowed from under paper bandages. In a feeble network, rivulets of running water washed some of this slime away.
There was only one long table to put broken bodies on. Some were so far gone they could not live past the knife's first cutting shock. The doctor motioned others away as soon as he touched their faces or saw wounds beyond repair. There was little he could do. The bloody bubbling of a punctured lung or the purple sheen of handheld guts was a sure sign that a man would die. Fellow soldiers set and splinted simple breaks, arms and legs, out in the field. Only when an arm was shattered or a leg was crushed into oozing pulp, then, at long last there was something to bring to a doctor's skill. A good one could cut and saw and get it done so quickly that the patient didn't die from shock.
This doctor had been in this cave forever. It was cut, saw, fold,and stitch, cut, saw, fold, and stitch, over and over again. Then there would come a pause. The doctor motioned another hopeless hurt away to die, a body violated by the steel splinters from the guns. As he cut, the doctor thought. There was only one good thing about this goddamned war: The further west it got, the less the wounded died from tetanus.
"Frazier!"
The doctor looked up from his cruelly wounded patient. For only a second he studied his own upturned blood-soaked palms. The hands were his own, but at the same time they were strangers. He wanted them to save everyone brought to him, but even his hands knew that so many of them would die.
His own name sounded oddly to him. Was he still here? Of a certainty he was, and the fatigue such as few men ever experience engulfed him once again.
Nearby, an army surgeon asked him, "How's it going?" This friendly shred of ebullience was a product of the man's recent arrival.
Frazier wondered and then said, "Not so well. I'd do much better if so many of my patients didn't die."
In the midst of all this slaughter, to be human was to be a foreigner and in this instant he didn't think he would ever be able to doctor anyone again.
A colonel, the front of whose uniform remained a splendor, approached this ring of activity and light. He didn't seem aware of the vomit and the blood cascading down his back. Slung partially over his shoulder, the wounded man he carried spread stains where his lolling head gained some support across the colonel's shoulder. As he made his way, the colonel had trouble seeing the wounded scattered on the floor. He stepped heavily on one man's arm, but the man was safely dead.
The doctor's needle still moved even as he briefly glanced at the colonel's face, which was radiant, like a child come to Christmasmorning. "This is a hero, Doctor. I want you to give him your best. He's not my son, yet I'd be a proud man if he was."
As he spoke the colonel looked for a place to set this living body down. Orderlies carried off the amputee as the last stitch was sewn. The colonel's boy was fortunate. A shattered foot to come off--spent cannon ball or caisson wheel, what did it matter now? The doctor picked up his scalpel. It was coated and bloody so he wiped it carefully on his sleeve. The doctor could see this officer didn't want to know what death was really like.
"Every once in a while," the colonel said, "you see something that's so slam-bang gutsy it raises your blood up in your veins like, well, like the maple sap in spring."
The doctor made the first incision. The blood was new and freshly red against the surrounding mud and filth. The colonel turned away. Wasn't that typical? They could shoot and be shot in windrows and in ranks. They could ride mindlessly across a field made from a thousand butcher shops. But damn it! When someone did something to clean up the mess, some little step away from death, that turned their guts to water. The doctor could sew stitches in his sleep, so he repeated the colonel's words to himself. Gutsy and blood rising up like maple sap, and that's the key word, sap. The darling, darling boy, a hero personally delivered by his colonel. The sap, which runs like blood, blood caught up by paper sponges he'd had to use throughout the day. The more daring there is, the surer you have some boy looking in your eyes to wonder for a short time where his arm or leg is gone. Then like as not he'll bleed to death so as not to bother you. All that takes the fun from glory. The words in the doctor's mind were paced evenly like the feeble pulse beats coming from his patient.
God damn it, he, of all people, should know better. Yet from the bluffs, he'd seen the Federal ironclad Arkansas make its run. He'd jumped up and down in excitement along with everyone else. That was then. Now he was cured. Weeks later, a Northernnewspaper had passed through the lines. Some imbecile writing for it had thought the war was "delightfully, refreshingly daring." The words gushed out, pulsing, like blood from an untieable artery. Those were the words. The son of a bitch's eyes must have been shining to watch that ironclad come down the stream, but then so had his. It seemed long ago, and now he loudly said, "Large balls of horse shit to you, good fellow."
An orderly looked up. The doctor shook his head. Even if that journalist were here and I could say it to him, it would do no good. The son of a bitch would be stupid enough so as not to hear me. The doctor bit off a fresh piece of silk and deftly moistened it to rethread his needle. If there was not too much infection, this boy'd be nearly sure to live.
White faces surrounded him, and naked arms held lanterns and lamps so he might see to work. He dropped a severed arm into the large tub at his side. Before releasing his grasp the doctor held onto the wrist. The fingers were stilled and no longer twisted in agony. All the feeling and all the pain remained buried in the body underneath the bloody stump. For the arm, as he now held it, the war was over. Its owner was being carted away to a straw pallet and a small chance for life again. Before disposing of this relic he looked closely at the hand. He always looked at the hands, powder stained and farmer calloused. It wasn't often you cut away a gambler's clean soft hand, or for that matter any gentleman's.
The arms and legs kept coming off inside this stifling cave. The light from the lanterns swayed and the hot oil smell and the smoke mixed with the smell of blood and pain. Time had stopped long ago and his dripping sleeve was sodden as he mopped his brow for the thousandth time. Suddenly this one operation seemed easier. Had someone finally found a sharpened bone saw, or was this his second wind? As he folded the flaps of skin back over the stump he looked to see. It was neither. He had just cut the left arm from a very young adolescent girl.
 

 

A horse had been butchered. Its hooves and hide still rested beside a shambled tree. The shells and bombs of the afternoon had pounded homes into a ruin. Men had come to dig. They found the broken body of a girl. There had been soft moans to guide them to her. As an ambulance drove away the rescuers wondered, in the midst of all those wounded soldiers what would become of her? Some went to dig in other places, or to fall, finally with exhaustion, into sleep. A few had the luck to find whisky in unbroken bottles and used it to soften the night.
There was one small joy in Vicksburg as darkness filled the streets. No one could see or hear it. Deep in the cellar ruins, thin and starved himself, a rare surviving rat, untrapped and uneaten through all the siege, came upon the freshly broken body of a woman beside two perfect apples in a shattered parchment envelope.
Copyright © 2000 by David Ballantine

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Chalk's Woman 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
justablondemoment on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was not for me. I thought the idea for the book was a great one and the story would have probably carried me to the end, as I found the characters intriguing. But the author just didn't follow thru and just when I thought I was going get to know the characters, I was immediately let down. I also could not get past the style of writing I felt it very juvenile. Extremely short sentence structure. No depth at all. It was like reading Dick, Jane and Spot. Expected more..shrugs...it happens
Guest More than 1 year ago
You have to really dig to find out what the plot is. Plus, the writing is stilted (is that supposed to be how people wrote back then?) and passive voice, my all-time unfavorite style. I couldn't get through the book. I skipped pages of description, trying to find even a barebones plot, but I gave up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the summer of 1863, the armies of the North and South fight at Vicksburg with some of the residual combat directly impacting civilians. For instance, local resident, teenager Ann Baxter barely survives a blast to her home that left her family dead and her arm amputated. After recovering in a poorly designed stopgap hospital, Ann realizes that as a homeless orphan her life in her hometown is over. She decides to leave Vicksburg and start over out west.

On the trek, Ann meets fourteen-year old Jim and his three younger siblings including a baby. Jim's parents just died leading to Ann, Jim, and the others to quickly rely on one another. In Kansas, Chalk, a drunk with little to live for, meets Ann and her merry band. As he observes her courageously face danger and trying situations, he finds he now has something to care about, his beloved Ann.

CHALK'S WOMAN is an exciting Reconstruction Era romance that centers on the lasting aftermath of the Civil War. The engaging story line works because of the depth each important character contains, which allows the audience to feel what the prime cast feels. David Ballantine provides sub-genre fans with a powerful debut novel that will leave readers anticipating future works from the author.

Harriet Klausner