The gunpowder gals

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Author: David Shaw

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.

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.

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 eyes fastening especially on Amanda’s 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 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, blue eyes set widely apart underneath the bill of his kepi, a shaven and strong jaw line, his face deeply tanned by the weather, handling the reins one handed as if he’d been born on a horse’s back.

“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.”

“Well, Ma’m, 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, eyes flashing 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 asked.

“All and every able bodied man in village, Ma’am. We’re confining them in the cargo deck 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.”

“Oh.”

“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 softened into something nearer to a smile: “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’m, we’re from Georgia and we treat all ladies with respect, especially ones that look as if they like posing in front of an audience.” 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, Amanda’s cheeks blushed scarlet and she stamped a foot in fury as the Rebs 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 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 it: “The Life of Admiral 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 the 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 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 Confederates riding past. All the men held in the Henrietta, all the women staying at home and not even the Rebs 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. Mmmm . . .

“Ma’am.” It was the Sergeant again, walking towards her. This time he wasn’t smiling but stopped in front of her and lifted his hand to his cap in a crisp salute. “Sergeant Wade, Ma’am.”

Amanda nodded her head in brief acknowledgement of the NCO’s new found civility.

“Glad you could come, Ma’am. The Lieutenant is on board, on the Texas deck, if you’d care to follow me.”

Amanda nodded again and followed him onto the landing stage and up the gangplank. A board was set on an easel at the head of the gangplank, a white painted board with red wording on it: “DANGER – NO SMOKING, NO UNSHIELDED CANDLES.” The teacher looked up at the two high cast iron smokestacks towering above the Henrietta and thought that her crew must have had a nervous trip down river.

The Sergeant led her up an outside staircase to the top deck. The sun suddenly appeared for the first time that day and Amanda unexpectedly felt her spirits rising in time to her ascending footsteps. The Sergeant held open the door.

“Lieutenant Lee will see you now, Ma’am. Please go in.”

The leather bound couches and chairs scattered throughout the glassed in deck were as luxurious as Amanda remembered from the only other time she had been aboard the Henrietta. The pile carpet just as thick, the pictures on the walls depicting river scenes just as pleasant, the air still redolent with the lingering aroma of fine cigars, the spittoons just as brightly polished. But now there was no crowd of prosperous business men, no fine ladies, no busy stewards. Just a tall, slender young man with long blonde hair and a fine set of golden mutton-chop whiskers, a young man who gave every appearance of having fallen asleep in the armchair he was now lifting himself out of. Which wouldn’t have surprised Amanda because there were lines of strain around his eyes and his uniform was as crumpled and travel strained as any of his men’s.

“Beg your pardon, Ma’am, beg your pardon. Must have nodded off unexpectedly.”

The officer juggled uncertainly with what had been resting on his lap, a holed gray sock with a wooden darning mushroom inside it and a needle dangling from the hole on woolen threads. He finally put the sock down on the coffee table between them, next to a belt with a saber scabbard attached and an open holster displaying the well oiled butt of a revolving pistol. Then the Confederate lieutenant made a formal bow to her. Amanda acknowledged with a stiff nod of her head, which brought her attention to the officer’s feet. No boots, and one sock on, the left foot bare. She couldn’t help smiling at the sight.

“Must apologize, Ma’am. I don’t normally receive ladies in this manner.”

“The fortunes of war, Lieutenant. Please don’t worry about it. May I sit down?”

“Please do, Ma’am, please do.”

Amanda settled herself in the chair opposite to his, across the coffee table.

“My name is Amanda, Amanda Shilling. Are you any relation to the famous General Lee?”

“Why no, Ma’am, Miss Shilling. I’m just plain James Lee, a Georgia school teacher and noways a member of the first families of Virginia. But I guess I didn’t tell the boys that until after they’d elected me as a company officer.” He smiled – or at least she thought he did. It was hard to tell underneath all that facial hair.

“Please call me Amanda, James. I think we have some important matters to discuss and we should be as friendly towards each other as we can.”

James huffed and blew into his whiskers, apparently distressed: “I would surely like to be good friends with you, Miss Shilling, even if you are a red hot Federalist, or so Sergeant Wade says. But to tell the honest truth, there’s no way I can be friends with anybody in this township.”

Amanda bent forward, picked up the sock and the darning mushroom and looked with amusement at the typical male botch James had been making of the simple job.

“May I?” She began drawing the needle neatly back and forth across the heel of the sock.

James seemed astonished and then even more upset: “Miss Shilling, please don’t do that. It’s right civil of you but where I come from we kind of think it’s important to return civility with civility and I can’t do that – not here and not now.”

“Mmmm.” Amanda looked up from the sock. “You’re talking about the gunpowder, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Ma’am. To tell the truth I was only supposed to take my patrol up river on a reconnaissance mission. But when we saw a side-wheeler flying a gunpowder warning flag and putting into a village under our noses without hardly a Yankee soldier in sight, well, I guess we just had to up and take our chance. So here we are.”

“Yes, so here you are. And what happens next?”

“Today and tonight we rest ourselves and our horses, water them, and feed them on the forage we found aboard. We’ll fill our saddlebags from the US army rations here as well. Then, tomorrow morning, we’ll turn your men folk loose and tell them to step lively out of the village as quick as ever they can. And thirty minutes later we’ll have to set fire to this fine boat.”

Amanda nodded in calm understanding. “And when all the gunpowder in the hold explodes half of our houses will get flattened. And all those bales of fodder will get blown into the air, most of them on fire I suppose, and crash down on the roofs of the rest of the village like a shower of burning comets. I doubt that a house in the entire settlement won’t get blown over or burnt to the ground. A fine way to make war, Lieutenant.”

“Miss Shilling, if I were to leave the powder intact, it could be used to kill hundreds of Confederate soldiers. My own troopers would probably hang me if I were to leave here without getting rid of it. And there’s no way they’ll care overmuch about what happens to your village. Talk about the horrors of war to Grant, to Sherman, to the folks in Atlanta, but don’t waste your breath talking about them to my boys. They know only too well what your blue belly armies are doing down South.”

Amanda nodded, rotated the mushroom in her fingers and began cross weaving the wool across the hole.

“Suppose you were to bore some holes in the bottom of the Henrietta and set her adrift. She’d sink and your job would be done, wouldn’t it?”

“Ma’am, if you were to come out onto the bridge with me I could show you a dozen mud banks in sight of this landing stage. Were I to push the boat out into the current it’s as likely as not she’d run up onto the mud somewhere and stay there high and dry. Maybe she’d never steam again but the Yankee army would soon salvage the powder and all the other supplies on board.”

“Set a powder train to explode the powder and then let the Henrietta drift away.”

“Ma’am, Miss Shilling, powder trains are dangerous and not very reliable. The only way I can be sure of doing the job is to start a fire myself in the lower cabins, a fire I know can’t be put out, and then jump on my horse and gallop away as quickly as I can. That’s why I asked you to come here. I want you to explain to the women folk hereabouts how things stand and to tell them get what valuables they can out of their houses before dawn tomorrow.”

“Without the men to help us, we couldn’t move much at all. Not that the collection of oldsters and loafers you’ve imprisoned here on the Henrietta would amount to much help anyway – all the real men are away fighting in the war on one side or the other. Besides, what’s the use of moving out valuables if we’re left with no roofs over our heads?”

A dimple appeared in James’s chin as he set it firmly against her blandishments: “Ma’am, I’m plumb sorry, but a warning is the best I can do for you.”

“Mmmmm . . .” Amanda lifted up her eyes again, fastening them directly on the officer’s. “But suppose you started the fire and then had the Henrietta poled out away from the wharf? There’d at least be a chance she’d drift far enough away so as not to damage the village when she exploded.”

“Ma’am! Ma’am!” James pulled on his whiskers with exasperation. “Can’t you see how dangerous such a thing would be? I’ve nineteen men here and it would need every one of them to pole out a boat this size smartly enough to stand a chance of getting it away and down river before the fire reached the powder barrels. I’d be risking my entire command just to save some civilians’ houses. The boys would think I was as mad as a meat axe if I was to suggest such a thing to them. I’m sorry, but this isn’t the kind of war with any chivalry left in it. Maybe it started out like that but all the gallant knights in blue and gray have been buried at Bull Run and Sharpsburg and a thousand other places. Nowadays there’s nothing left but spite and dirty dealings.”

“Alright, James, let’s talk about dirty dealings then. By the by, have you got a pair of scissors?”

The Southerner blinked in surprise at her words, then reached out to a small roll of canvas on the coffee table and spread it out. From one of the pockets inside the roll he withdrew a small pair of scissors. Amanda took them from his fingers and neatly clipped off the threads from the sock.

“There. Now, suppose your men were to agree to take the risk of poling out the Henrietta when she was on fire. Would that change matters?”

The officer shook his head in despair at her stubbornness: “Miss Shilling, they plain won’t, and even if they did, I wouldn’t let them. Losing men in a war is bad enough, but getting them killed just in trying to save a few houses would be plumb crazy.”

“Mmmm. . .” Amanda stood up, still holding the repaired sock. “James, why don’t you stretch yourself out on that couch. Put your feet up on the arm rest and I’ll see if that other sock needs darning as well.”

James blinked, his blue eyes puzzled: “What?”

“Please lie down on the couch, Lieutenant. I’ve got some more things to say to you yet. In the meantime, I’ll take a look at that other sock. Now don’t be shy and just spread yourself out.” She walked over and patted the red tinged cowhide back of the couch. “Come on, James, relax. You’ve earned it. And whilst you’re resting we’ll discuss a very ancient legend. Believe me, you’ll find it interesting.”

James had stood up when she had but was still hesitating: “What legend would that be, Miss Shilling?”

“The legend about the rape of the Sabine Women, Lieutenant Lee, sir.”

He was still confused, but certainly interested. At least she had no doubt now that the Lieutenant was a man with a normal man’s interest in women. “What?”

“If you want to hear the story you must lie down like a good boy.” Amanda’s coyness tempted him, his feet moved across the carpet. Then a sudden suspicious thought turned his head towards the coffee table and the belt on it. Amanda smiled as she followed his thoughts.

“Don’t worry, Lieutenant, I’ve no intention of playing the Charlotte Corday to your Marat. I’m not going to try to shoot you with your pistol or stab you with your own saber.”

The officer smiled in embarrassment, more so as the school teacher picked up two cushions from a chair and put them down on one end of the couch. She patted them invitingly and smiled again. The Lieutenant found the invitation irresistible. He stretched out on the couch and rested his head on the cushions. Yet his arms remained stiffly by his side as he watched Amanda. She bent over him and tweaked the cushions a little, smiling at him.

“You remember the legend about the Sabine women, James?”

“Yes. The story goes that when Rome was first founded the city didn’t have enough women and so they tried to buy some brides from a nearby tribe called the Sabines. But the tribe wouldn’t sell them any, so the Romans kidnapped the women they wanted.”

“That’s right, Lieutenant, that’s right.”

She straightened again and walked around the couch until she was at the other end of it, looking down at his face. He trembled in surprise as he felt her fingers stroke the soles of his feet, one bare, the other still with a sock on it. Then his eyes widened further as she knelt down and rubbed his feet harder.

“Oh dear, James, I’m afraid this is another holy sock to match your boot’s sole. I’d better take it off as well.”

She felt his leg quivering as she ran her fingernails over it, gently drawing off the strongly smelling sock. In truth, although the stench was strong touching the man’s foot was making her catch her breath in excitement. She was astonished to find herself acting so brazenly and even enjoying it.

“Miss Shilling, this ain’t right. You shouldn’t be doing that and I know I stink like a polecat because I’ve hardly been out of my saddle for a week ‘cept to sleep.”

“My name is Amanda, Lieutenant, and that’s what you must call me. Amanda.”

She leaned forward and brushed her lips against his instep, his left one. Then she did the same to the right one.

“Is this what you get your slave girls in Georgia to do for you, James?”

The Southerner gave a bark of laughter: “School teachers can’t afford slaves, Amanda. You should know that. Especially not slave girls.”

“But if you did have them, would you like them to do this to you?” This time she put out her tongue and flicked it over the bottom of his feet.

“Yes, I guess I would at that, Amanda.” His voice was deeper, almost grunting.

“Do you think the Romans made the Sabine women do this for them after they’d stolen them? Before they got down to the serious business of turning them from virgins into wives?”

James gasped in astonishment: “By crackey, you sure are the boldest school marm that ever I’ve met!”

“One of those houses out there is mine, James. Every cent I’ve got in the world is invested in it. I guess this is a time when I need to be bold.”

She ran her tongue along the toes on his right foot as if she was drawing a paint brush along a picket fence. The officer stirred again and lifted his hands to cover the growing bulge in his pants.

“Leave it be, James. I like seeing it standing up so proud. Are you thinking about using it as if you were my husband?”

“Lord, Amanda, I’d love to but I’ve told you the truth. The men wouldn’t let me risk their lives to save this village, no matter how much you pleasured me.”

Amanda stood up again, smiling: “I know you’re telling the truth, James, and I respect you for it. But do you remember the last part of the legend? How the Sabine men came to fight to get their women back but then the women themselves stepped in and said they were living happily in Rome and wanted peace?”

“I remember.”

“Good.”

Amanda spread out her skirts and knelt down again, by his side. She undid her bonnet ribbons, carefully took off the hat and put it aside. Her right hand settled as gently as a humming bird on the fork of the thick army pants, her palm lying on the obvious sign of his aroused manhood.

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