The Gunpowder Galsbyshawalphamale©
Amanda Shilling is a school teacher with a problem. A patrol of Confederate soldiers has to destroy a river boat full of Union gunpowder and Amanda's town is going to get blown up with it. Unless the women of Stony Creek can find a way of persuading the Rebs to do their duty without flattening the settlement. So the ladies get together in the school house for a fortifying sip or two of anti-fogmatic before discussing treaty terms. Only to find out that the Southern cavalry has a well deserved reputation for getting there fustest with the mostest -- especially the mostest.
The chalk scratched on the blackboard as Miss Shilling carefully wrote the date on it, 'October 17th, 1864'. Then, in the top center of the board she wrote 'TRIGONOMETRY'. Finally, underneath the word, she drew the outline of a tree. When she turned around her class was still waiting dutifully, none of the boys or girls daring to indulge in any horseplay even when her back was turned.
Amanda Shilling was an imposing figure, very tall for a female, with a full figure which caused many an admiring male eye to linger on the generous cut of her bodice and the trim dimensions of her hips. In fact it was widely agreed amongst the men of Clayton County that School Ma'am Shilling was just about the beatingest thing to come down the river in a coon's age. Selectman Jenkins had spoken for all of his gender at the regular Saturday night cock fight a week after her arrival: "She's a great young gal, that one. Shaped like a real woman and as handsome as Cleopatra, you bet. Yes, sirree, she's a huckleberry above most peoples' persimmons. Gonna be a real lucky man that she sets her cap at."
In the weeks since her arrival Amanda had not picked out any of her many male admirers for any special signs of favor but the general liking for her in the village had continued to increase. Respectable but not high-faluting, a strong disciplinarian but a well gifted teacher, never one to flaunt her good looks but happy to be sociable with all. In only one way had she upset some of the population of Stony Creek, and that was in her fervent support of the Northern cause. Yet she certainly wasn't alone in that regard because both the secessionist and abolitionist states had their ardent supporters along the banks of the Missouri. Like so many other settlements in the area Stony Creek was split almost fifty-fifty between Jayhawks and Separatists.
"Now, children, look at the word on the board. Trigonometry: it sounds strange but all it's saying is that we're going to study triangles. You are probably wondering what could be interesting about triangles but they can be very useful in solving problems. For example, you've seen the tree I've drawn on the board. Now suppose it was a very tall tree and you wanted to measure how high it was without having to climb it. Can anybody tell me how you could do that?"
Silence from the rows of well scrubbed faces.
"Very well." Amanda picked up a ruler. "Imagine that the sun is shining and the tree is casting a shadow. I draw one line straight down the side of the tree and another straight line across from it to show how long the shadow is. When we measure the shadow of the tree we find it is sixty feet long. But, of course, shadows get shorter and longer depending on where the sun is in the sky, so how can that help us?"
Again there was silence in the class room but a long drawn out howl from a riverboat's siren called out to the village from the river. Mildly surprised, Amanda walked across to the window and looked out at the steam packet churning up the muddy water near the landing with its paddle wheels. Certainly the Henrietta P. Johnson, but arriving two days earlier than on its normal schedule, with several blue shirted soldiers visible on the lower deck and with a large red flag flying above the Texas deck.
A chair scraped behind one of the desks as a boy stood up. "Yes, Ma'am?"
"Why is the Henrietta coming in today, Samuel?"
"She's been chartered by the bluebellies -- sorry, Ma'am, I mean the army. The Union army that is." Samuel was proud of his special source of knowledge as the wharfinger's son, as much as he was obviously influenced by his father's Southern sympathies.
"She's carrying supplies to General Blunt's men at Lexington?"
"Supposed to be, Ma'am, but the Rebs have gotten clustered up around Lexington like mountain men around a keg of whiskey. Ain't no way the captain of the Henrietta is going down river to Lexington with that powder aboard her."
"Powder?" Amanda looked around at her pupil, rising fourteen and standing so tall he was almost eye to eye with her. "You mean gunpowder?"
Samuel was shyly smiling at this reversal of their usual roles and reveling in the pleasure of being a source of information to his teacher.
"Why yes, Ma'am, twenty tons of it according to the bill of lading we was sent. If it's on board she'll be flying a red danger flag."
"Yes, there is a red flag. There are some soldiers on board as well."
Samuel nodded knowingly: "That'll be the army fire guard, Ma'am. To make sure nobody smokes anywhere near those powder kegs. And I daresay my Pa will be searching every wharf rat before he lets any of them start work unloading the Henrietta. He'll have his cudgel in his hand and he's said he'll break the skull of any man found carrying a pipe, 'baccy or loco-focos onto the landing stage."
"Really? The gunpowder is that dangerous?"
Samuel Trent came as close to openly laughing in the classroom as he'd ever done since Miss Shilling had arrived. "Why, Ma'am, one spark in the wrong place and the Henrietta would get blown so high the pieces could still be falling come Thanksgiving. Leastways, that's what my Pa says."
"Thank you, Samuel, you can sit down again. Now, we were talking about how to find the height of the tree. As I said, just measuring the shadow tells us nothing. So what we might do is to take a stick and carefully cut off three feet of it. Then we put it in the ground, burying it for a depth of one foot. If the stick is three feet long and one foot is in the ground, how much would be left above the ground? Anybody?"
There were plenty of eager hands held aloft: "Teddy Smith?"
"Two feet, Ma'am."
"Quite right. Now suppose we measured the shadow the stick was casting and it was four feet long. Can anybody tell me what the ratio would be between the length of the shadow and the length of the stick? Yes, Elizabeth?"
"The shadow is twice as long, Ma'am."
"Exactly. So if we measure the tree's shadow at that very same moment and it's sixty feet long, then how tall must the tree be?"
"Thirty feet, Ma'am."
Elizabeth Manders was almost always the first to answer any difficult question. A pity that she was only a girl from a poor family with no hope of ever being anything more than a village school teacher. Which was precisely Amanda Shilling's own predestinated fate until she chose to abandon even that modest degree of ambition by agreeing to love, honor and obey some byre smelling, muddy booted farmer for the rest of her life.
"Quite right. Now suppose there was a church steeple nearby and you knew that the top of the steeple was forty feet above the ground. How long a shadow would it be . . ."
Her lesson was abruptly interrupted by a pounding of hooves, ululating screams, the sound of shots being fired nearby. The teacher looked out at the window again, but this time no further than the muddy street beside the school horse. A dozen horses were galloping down it in a solid mass, their riders whooping and firing carbines and pistols into the air as the few citizens of Stony Creek who were abroad scurried to get clear of the onrushing charge. Amanda had no idea at all who the men could be, until she realized they were wearing uniforms, some of the jackets a dull gray, others dyed buttercup brown. All of the riders also had on kepi styled flat hats.
"Lord, save us, they're Johnny Rebs!"
Amanda was astonished. Certainly, she'd seen plenty of Confederate troops before -- in the early days of the Rebellion the entire Missouri state militia had enlisted in the Southern cause. But that had been long ago, in the heady days of Rebel pride and confidence. Now General Grant was hammering the secessionists' homeland into ruins and the Rebs should have had enough to worry about without making a futile attempt to recapture lost territory along the Missouri. In any case General Sterling's Confederate troops were supposed to be at Lexington, just as Samuel Trent had said, and Lexington was at least a day's ride away. This must be a small raiding party of cavalry, the kind of lawless insurgents whom had made the border areas of Kansas and Missouri such places of misery even before the war had begun.
"Damn their eyes!"
Amanda checked herself guilty as she realized her muttered oath might have been heard by the tender ears of the children. What sort of feather head was she, to swear a vile curse in her own classroom just because of a few marauding soldiers?
"Class, pay attention. It seems that some soldiers have ridden into village and it maybe that I shall choose to send you home early. But I think it better that you stay here for the time being, until things settle down. Yes, Samuel?"
"Are they Rebs, please, Ma'am?"
"I do believe so, Samuel."
The boy was clearly pleased. "Ma'am, I just bet they saw the danger flag flying on the Henrietta and came down to grab her powder for their own army."
Amanda felt her legs trembling. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings came wisdom. It might well be that it was the sight of the red flagged side-wheeler arriving which had bought the grayback cavalry sweeping down to the village and towards the landing stage. Enemy soldiers, and twenty tons of gunpowder in their hands! But there was nothing to be done about it for the time being and the children must be kept occupied in the school house until calm was restored. Which shouldn't take long, as soon as the Confederates discovered that the town was empty of Union troops and defenseless.
"Class, please copy out the drawing on the blackboard."
The children picked up their chalks and began drawing on their slates. Amanda walked up the aisle between the desks, lips pursed and teeth gritted at the chorus of squeaky, scratchy sounds which always annoyed her so much. It would be a wonderful thing to teach in a school which could afford paper and pens for every lesson.
Then the irritation of the slates ceased because of the sound of a horse neighing in the street and a southern accented voice calling out: "Hey, in the school house there, let's see your hides."
A glance through the nearest window showed three cavalry soldiers outside, all looking at the schoolhouse, carbines casually resting on their saddles and pointed at the building. Fury brewed up inside Amanda in a red hot stream at the thought of her class being threatened by the slave owning bullies. A desperate desire to show her contempt for them and their ragamuffin Rebel uniforms made her careless of the menacing firearms. With a firm resolve she swept back quickly down the room, her long skirts rustling against the children's desks. Behind her own desk was the patriotic emblem of her country, a large United States flag. She unhooked it, draped it around her, then threw open the door and stepped out onto the verandah.
Amanda had hoped to annoy the Southerners with her impulsive action in wearing the stars and stripes but instead of anger the response was laughter. Especially galling as none of the Rebel soldiers seemed much older than the oldest children in her classroom. Tired, dirty, their horses splashed to the hocks with mud, but young and in a cheerful mood. One of them, hardly twenty but wearing Sergeant's chevrons, laughed openly at the sight of the flag, his keen blue eyes fastening especially on Amanda's generous proportioned bosom.
"Best be careful there, Miss. We're just the boys to storm any breastworks that have got a Federal flag flying over them."
His companions greeted his jaunty insolence with delight, slapping their legs and laughing as if they were watching a circus performance.
"Keep a civil tongue in your head, you filthy traitor."
Again, the Sergeant appeared delighted at her response instead of becoming angry. He was something around medium height, his face deeply tanned by the weather, handling the reins one handed as if he'd been born on a horse's back. Very oddly, his face was as hairless as a boy's, not only clean shaven but freshly shaved that very day. Perhaps he chose to be so in a world of bearded men because it showed off his strong jawline and dimpled chin.
"I'd have to admit we're not in our Sunday best, Ma'am, but nobody puts on their good clothes when they're out hog killing. And back home, when we get guests calling round, we kinda take to being polite to them, 'stead of calling them all kinds of filthy names."
"Then I suggest you go back home immediately, wherever your log cabin is, instead of coming where you're not wanted and terrifying decent people."
The sergeant's dimpled chin showed up even more clearly as he smiled again.
"Well, Ma'am, first off, if living in a log cabin is a sin, I guess you'll have to point out to me where your mansion is, 'cause this whole village seems to me to be pretty much a collection of wooden shacks floating on mud."
Even Amanda in the fullness of her wrath couldn't gainsay him on that point; Stony Creek was not a picturesque sight, not even by Missouri standards.
"Secondly, Ma'am, I'd be real delighted to go back home if'n only old longshanks Lincoln would promise to leave me in peace once I was back there. And thirdly, I guess you don't seem too terrified to me."
Amanda drew herself up on tiptoe, backbone set straight in defiance, her hands still clasped in the folds of the flag of the United States. "I'm not scared of you! But you're pointing your guns at my classroom and the children in my charge."
The Sergeant reluctantly took his eyes away from the splendid sight of the bristling school Ma'am; whoever was her beau was sure one lucky son of a bitch. Every window in the school house was packed tight with curious faces -- children's faces.
"OK, boys, put up your pieces. Joey, just take a glance and make sure no men are hiding inside."
"What men are you looking for?" the teacher demanded to know. The Rebel NCO seemed happy to answer her.
"All and every able bodied man in village, Ma'am. We're confining them in the cargo hold of that steamer. We need to keep them under our eyes and out of mischief whilst we're here. Don't worry though, nobody is going to get hurt. We're here today and gone tomorrow."
As one of the Rebs looked around the schoolhouse Amanda saw a dozen glum looking townsmen walking down the street, two cavalry men riding behind the procession, carbine butts resting on their hips. One of the soldiers was chewing like a cow on its cud and as he passed Amanda and the Union flag a stream of tobacco stained juice spurted from his lips and across the schoolhouse steps.
"If you're dressed for killing hogs, I think you can make a start in your own ranks," Amanda snapped at the Sergeant.
"Don't pay no mind to Josh Chamberlain, Ma'am. He's a good soul but he lost two brothers at Gettysburg and now just got news his home in Atlanta's been burnt down by Sherman's men."
"Ma'am, I think it might be a good idea to dismiss your class for today. Just until the ructions are over."
"That's my decision to make," Amanda flared back.
The Sergeant's grin flickered into life again like a candle in a breeze.
"Look, Ma'am, I'm paid to fight Federalist soldiers but savagerous school marms are more than I ever reckoned on. You can do whatever you like but it seems to me that the woman folk hereabouts would be glad to have their children safe at home while their men folk are away. Also, I've got an invitation for you."
"An invitation -- what sort of an invitation?"
"An invitation from Lieutenant Lee, our officer. He'd be right obliged if you'd step on board the steamer presently. He's got some news for the village women and he needs somebody to pass it on to them. He said to me, particular, that if I should find a lady teacher I should ask her over, as being the best for the job. I guess if he'd known how handsome the school marms are hereabouts he'd have asked even more particularly."
"Dash your impudence," Amanda responded fiercely. "Are you algerines and kidnappers like Mosby's bushwhackers?"
"No, ma'am, we're from Georgia and we treat all ladies with respect, especially ones that look as if they like posing on a stage." His companions chuckled again. "Miss, you'll be treated honorably, my word on it. Lieutenant Lee is a fine gentleman and a school teacher himself when he ain't soldiering in a war: he can read Greek and Latin to beat anything. He wouldn't have asked you to call 'cept it was important."
Amanda nodded: "Very well, I'll come directly."
The Sergeant held up his hand: "No, Ma'am, no. Give us half an hour first. We're making all the men shuck off their clothes before we put them below decks. Can't risk having anybody down in that boat with tools, 'baccy or any way of making fire on them. Not with the cargo she's carrying. And I guess the gentlemen would be right shy about you seeing them in public without their unmentionables on -- though I daresay most of them would be real happy to take them off for you in private."
The cavalrymen guffawed again at the Sergeant's drawling impudence, Amanda's cheeks blushed scarlet and she stamped a foot in fury as the Confederates swung their horses' heads around and cantered off down Main street.
"Oh, you . . . you villains!"
With an effort she restrained her anger and went back into the classroom, all the children guilty rushing back from the windows to their desks. Amanda carefully rehung the flag in its place of pride and then turned to face her class.
"Children, I'm going to dismiss you for the rest of the day. Go home quietly and directly. I want each of you to take a message home from me to your mothers. Tell them I'm going to speak to the Rebel officer presently and I expect to have some news afterwards. I want all the ladies who can to come here to the schoolhouse at one o'clock so that I can tell them what's happening. Please make sure your mothers hear about the meeting -- here, at the schoolhouse, at one o'clock this afternoon. Now put your things away and file out quietly."
When the classroom was empty Amanda went to the bookcase at the back of the room and selected a volume from the partly filled shelves. The school library was a haphazard collection of old and tattered books, and though she had read them all Amanda had never expected to find herself seeking guidance from the one she was now opening: "The Life and Battles of Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson."
Flicking quickly through the pages she found the chapter dealing with the Battle of the Nile. Then, with pursed lips, she carefully read again the author's account of what had happened when the powder magazine aboard the French flagship 'L'Orient' had exploded. Even the passage of almost seventy years since the battle did little to soften the horrors the book so graphically described. It was in a very thoughtful mood that Amanda finally put on her bonnet and walked between the street puddles towards the landing stage.
The village seemed abandoned, save for a couple of soldiers riding past. All the men were imprisoned in the Henrietta, all the frightened women were staying at home and not even the Rebs were showing much interest in the village. But there were a long line of cavalry horses tethered to a fence near the landing stage. Soldiers were busy around them, some fetching buckets of water from a nearby drinking trough, others carrying fodder from the deck of the Henrietta and breaking the bales open for the horses to feed on. Amanda stopped and watched, judging the weight of the bales by the fact that two men were needed to lift each one. She also saw how many more bales were still piled on the deck. Then she counted the horses in the row. Fourteen and at least two more riding on patrol inside the village. She became lost in thought.