A first-time author in his 70s, Ballantine draws on his 15 years of experience as editor of military titles for Bantam, and also on his experience as an antique firearms expert, to deliver this rugged survival tale set just after the Civil War. Protagonist Ann is 13 when she loses both parents and one of her arms in the war. Five years later, heading west on the Santa Fe trail to Oregon with her exploitative adoptive parents, Ann escapes to help four children who've been orphaned by cholera. After they winter with Sioux Indians, who save their lives, Ann and the children settle in Kansas, where Ann falls in love with Chalk, a cheerful, hard-drinking cowboy. Ann gives birth to his child the same day he is arrested for killing gunslinger Kay Cee Smith. He's not only acquitted, he wins a reward for gunning down the wanted man. Fortified by the reward money, Chalk, Ann and all of the children set out to pan for gold. A final showdown with more gunslingers brings the novel to a close. Choppy prose and static characters who talk in platitudes make what could have been an inspiring tale of pioneer survival just a series of disjointed events strung together. Oddly absent is an account of most of the passage along the Santa Fe trail (the children's winter with the Indians is summed up in two paragraphs), which could have served as the centerpiece of the narrative, yet instead is just one of many devices engineered to move the plot along. (Dec.) FYI: The author's brother, Ian, is well known in the industry, having developed three major American paperback imprints, including Ballantine Books.