THE GUNPOWDER GALS

I have decided to write down my account of what happened in that fateful year of 1864 and to deposit it in a sealed envelope with our family's lawyers. Tomorrow is the first day of the twentieth century and I will leave instructions with the papers that they may not be unsealed until another hundred years has passed. My descendents may then finally learn the strange truth about how they came to be.
 
 There is certainly much shame in the account but perhaps matters which seem important now will not seem so important then. Perhaps it may even be that American men will regard American women as truly free and equal in all human activities, even the procreative ones. Alas though, I feel that many times a hundred years must pass before our society can change to such an extent.
 
 Yet although I cannot hope to know what the future holds I can at least be sure that the great waters of the Missouri river will still be flowing. The river was my constant companion for many years when I grew up in Kansas, and again when I crossed the border into Missouri state to become a teacher in the village of Stony Creek.
 
 Lacking the gift of prophecy, all I can do is to pray on my knees that, whatever fate may have befallen my descendents, in the year 2000 the glorious flag of our God given Union will still flutter bravely above every settlement along the banks of the mighty Missouri. For I remember all too well when for a day and a night the Stars and Stripes proudly flying above Stony Creek were ursurped by the iniquitous banner of the Southern Rebels.
 
 It was what I did during those few strange hours that I feel I must explain, lest dark rumors still linger about my memory. I - and the other village women - did what we did because that was the way the fortunes of war fell out for us. In 1861 the mad dogs of the Confederacy dared to fire on Fort Sumter and in time their rabid bites sent the whole country as mad as themselves. Can we be blamed for acting out an insanity when we found ourselves trapped in an insane situation?
 
 Let those who wish to sit in judgement read my story first, and then ask themselves what they would have done under the same circumstances.
 
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 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, neither 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.
 
 "Samuel Trent".
 
 A chair scraped behind one of the desks as a boy stood up. "Yes, Ma'am?"
 
 "Why is the Henrietta coming in today, Samuel?"
 
 "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'm, 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'm, 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 Christmas. 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'm."
 
 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 school marm 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 and the few citizens of Stony Creek who were abroad scurrying to get clear of the onrushing charge. Amanda thought at first that she was witnessing an attempt to raid the township's bank, until she realized the men 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'm?"
 
 "I do believe so, Samuel."
 
 The boy was clearly pleased. "Ma'm, I just bet they saw the danger flag flying on the Henrietta and came down to grab her powder for their own army."
 
 "Perhaps."
 
 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 would be better off 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 defenseless
 
 "Class, please copy out the drawing on the blackboard."
 
 The children picked up their own 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 man's rough 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 ruffians. 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.
 

...CONTINUES IN THE MEMBERS SECTION