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And the Rocket's Red Glare
The beginning of a new day. A new chance to breathe, to smile, to laugh. A new chance to live like you’re dying. To enjoy every moment and never have any regrets. The sunrise brought more than golden rays that bathed everything they touched in a warm glow; it brought a promise. A promise that no matter how bad yesterday was, tomorrow had the potential to fare better.
But this one was different. This morning, there was no smell of freshly cooked breakfast. There was no warmth of a soft, feather bed covered in thick quilts, coaxing one back to his dreamland. There was no promise that this day would be a good one. Instead, the dread and foreboding of oncoming disaster hung in the air like a thick, choking fog. This day did not start with hope, as others before it had. It started with fear.
Aaron Striver would never admit it, but he was afraid. As he stood gazing out at the dark gray waters from the cold stone walls of Fort McHenry, he could feel it creeping into his heart like a winter frost. In mere hours, he and the other militiamen would be faced with a fleet of hundreds of British battleships, armed with heaven only knew how many cannons. The boy had only just turned sixteen the past summer, and had never before seen a battle up close, let alone been a part of one. He had every right to be scared.
Despite the feelings of fear threatening to overcome him, Aaron had promised himself one thing and one thing alone: he would not run. He’d heard tell of the tragic battle at Bladensburg, where hundreds of Americans had simply thrown down their arms and run with their tales between their legs as the redcoats continued their march toward the nation’s capital. He’d heard of how those black-hearted scoundrels had left whole towns in ruin, sparing neither women nor children in their lust for blood. He’d heard of how they’d set fire to Washington, leaving the once proud city a charred and empty husk. And now they were coming here, to Baltimore. His home.
He would not let them destroy his birthplace, the town he’d spent his entire life in. He would not let his mother and sisters come to harm. He would not turn and run at the first sign of danger. Like his father and grandfather before him, he would stand and fight for the people he loved. For his home. For his country. To his last breath if need be.
“They’ll be here soon, won’t they?” Aaron’s gaze never left the horizon while his comrade approached from behind him, though he nodded in response. Everyone knew that the navy would arrive soon. It was his job to make sure the rest of the militia ready when it did. He was the first line of defense, and wasn’t going to let them down. The other soldier sat down, back resting against the stone wall he was gazing over. “Don’t go thinking I’ve gone soft or anything, but… this whole thing’s got me a little rattled, that’s all.”
Aaron felt a small pang as his friend voiced the same fears he himself was trying to deny. Sighing, he tore his gaze away from the horizon line, his green eyes meeting brown. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, Sarah. You know that, don’t you?”
His companion, blonde hair cut short and figure hidden beneath a dark blue uniform, smiled at him, still clearly nervous but mollified by his words. Aaron had grown to love that smile. Not long after he’d joined the militia, the two had become thick as thieves and nearly inseparable. It wasn’t until weeks later, though, that he’d learned Samuel Mason was actually Sarah Mason. After she’d told him the truth herself, Aaron had felt like a fool for not figuring it out sooner. Then again, never before had he met a woman skilled with a rifle or capable of holding her own in a fistfight against a gunman twice her size.
A gust of salty air brought the lookout out of his musings and back to the present situation. This was no time for daydreaming; he had a job to do. Turning back to the bay, he scanned the horizon for a short minute. Then, abruptly, his gaze stopped. “Do you have your spyglass with you?”
Sarah looked up, eyes showing confusion. “Yes, why?”
“Give it here.” The redhead tried to keep his voice even, but it still managed to betray his apprehension. He felt the cold metal of the brass spyglass as Sarah placed it in his waiting palm. Opening it, he aimed the device toward the spot on the horizon where a black mass was coming in to view and growing fast. The enlarged image from through the lens confirmed his fears.
Leagues away, but quickly drawing closer, a fleet of warships charged through the water like a stampede. As he watched, more and more vessels appeared, seemingly out of thin air. All ships bore the same flag, but Aaron didn’t need to see their colors to know who was commanding them. Or why they were headed straight for the fort.
He closed the spyglass quickly and tossed it to his companion, who caught it deftly in one hand. Heart pounding like a drum, he raced to the signal cannon, which was already loaded and ready. It felt like an eternity before the fuse finally lit, and the resounding explosion shook him to his very core. Thankfully, the blast was enough to wake the other militiamen and alert them to the impending danger.
“Everyone to the cannons!”
“Signal the navy!”
In mere seconds, the once dead fort had come alive with the sounds of shouting voices and booted feet pounding against stone. Through the chaos, Aaron was able to reach his cannon, where Sarah was already armed with a musket and extra ammunition. In the bay below, the ships had begun to mobilize, sixteen vessels prepared to face off against at least ten times as many opponents. Excitement, fear, and stubborn determination radiated from everybody in the fort as they stood waiting for the imminent first shot.
Even in the dim morning light, everyone could see and hear it clearly. The flash of cannon fire from one of the British vessels. The heavy splash as the mortar bomb barely missed one of their own ships.
The battle to keep their independence had begun.
Though the sun blazed high above, its light was nearly impossible to see through the thick blanket of cannon smoke. For the past few hours, the two sides had been volleying cannonballs back and forth, most shots just barely missing their marks. So far, the closest the British had come to actually hitting the fort had been a few mortars exploding just off the shore. The Americans weren’t faring much better. No matter how many vessels they managed to take out, another arrived to replace it minutes later.
Everyone knew that this battle would be one of the most trying of the war. But they were also aware that if the British managed to defeat them, the independence their fathers and grandfathers had won for them would be eradicated. Giving up would mean the end of the United States as they knew it. All of their careful planning and sacrifice for a greater good would have been in vain. That could not be allowed to happen.
The sound of one explosion after the other caused Aaron’s ears to ring painfully. He tried his best to ignore it, focusing instead on the small barrel of gunpowder he was carrying back to the cannon. Fort McHenry was well supplied, but he could only hope the British would end their attack before its ammunition stores ran out. Sighing wearily, doubt a starved beast gnawing at his heart, he stopped and gazed up at the enormous flag flying above them, strips of red and white and a piece of the night sky strewn with stars. The banner did more than declare who they were fighting for; it reminded everyone what they were fighting for: freedom, equality, independence. Unlike the British, they had something to protect. And that made the Americans all the more eager to win at any costs.
Lost in his mind, Aaron didn’t comprehend the warning until it was too late. The fiery blast of an exploding mortar knocked him to the ground, the barrel’s contents spilling just outside of the blast radius. The young soldier’s right knee erupted in pain as he attempted to right himself, crimson staining the tattered navy fabric of his pant leg. Nearby he could see others who had been caught in the detonation struggling to recover from the unforeseen assault. One lieutenant, he noticed, wasn’t getting up.
His teeth clenched as he felt himself being lifted up by a pair of hands too gentle to belong to a man. Aaron could see the worry and apprehension in her eyes as Sarah pulled his arm over her shoulder, giving him something to lean on. Slowly and painfully, they made their way to a sheltered corner of the fort where a crate of bandages and other medical supplies had been hidden. The redhead slumped against the wall, wincing as his comrade quickly began dressing the wound. Everything except the pain in his knee felt distant and surreal, as if the whole world was slowly devolving into a chaotic dream.
“I thought you were the one who was supposed to be watching out for me, not the other way around.” Aaron looked up. The smile he loved was laced with fear and concern, but it was still there, and he was grateful. He even managed a small chuckle and Sarah finished tying off the bandage. “Come on. We’d better get you inside where it’s safer.”
He shook his head, using the wall to pull himself up off of the ground. The pain in his leg still caused him to grimace, but it wasn’t as bad as before. Aaron could see the exasperation on Sarah’s face, but also a grudging admiration. “I’m not running away that easily.”
The girl sighed. They both knew that Aaron’s mind couldn’t be changed once he’d made a decision. “Alright, fine. But from now on, I’m making the ammunition runs.” Grinning tiredly, the boy nodded in agreement. One soldier supporting the other all the way, the pair made their way back to their post, returning to the battle that had continued to rage around them.
The stars, usually so bright against the ebony sky, had dimmed significantly against the red glare of the rockets. Vaguely, Aaron wondered how something so beautiful could be so dangerous. They’d almost lost their entire ammunition supply to a mortar that had miraculously failed to light. It was a frightening reminder of how quickly the battle could be lost. Still, they’d managed this long against the navy, and they’d hold out as long as necessary. If they had to, he knew that every American in the fort would match their rifles against the enemy’s cannons.
A sudden chill forced him to pull the threadbare woolen blanket tighter around his shoulders. The pain in his knee had ebbed to a dull throb, partly due to the distraction of the September evening cold. Although hours had passed since he had been injured, Sarah, true to her word, had insisted he stay at the cannon and let her retrieve any extra ammunition they might need. The girl could be just as stubborn with her decisions as Aaron was with his.
As the teenager loaded the cannon for another round, he heard a pair of footsteps approach and mortars being set carefully on the ground. “Those redcoats had better give up soon,” Sarah huffed as she grabbed the wick for the fuse. “If this keeps up much longer, we won’t have any ammunition left. The gunpowder’s down to only a few barrels.”
“Don’t worry. They can’t have too much left, either.” Despite his attempted optimism, Aaron knew that the situation was grim. True, they would fight without artillery if need be, but if the battle came to that, there was little chance the Americans could win. There was an entire navy against them, and no doubt few people, British or otherwise, expected the fort to last under the constant barrage of cannon fire. But then again, few had expected the battle to rage for more than an hour or two. Instead, they’d fought throughout the day and deep into the night, braving British attack and nature’s fury in the pursuit of victory. Now more than ever, failure was not an option. They would either win the battle or lose the war, and with it, their freedom.
A mortar blast shook the fort slightly, likely leaving a scorched mark on the outer stone wall. The sound yanked the two soldiers back to attention. In moments, the cannon was aimed and ready to fire, with Sarah lighting the fuse. Even with his ears covered, the roar of the artillery rang out loudly and clearly inside of Aaron’s skull. The leaden sphere sailed through the air as if it had suddenly sprouted wings and learned to fly, then slowly began its decent toward the inky water of the bay.
For a terrible, breathless second, the youths feared that the waves would swallow it up, but the cannon’s aim was true. Even from two miles away, they could still hear the crack of splintering wood as the ball pierced a hole in the hull of a British vessel. It took only minutes for the warship, once proud and invincible, to fall to the depth’s and disappear beneath the crushing weight of the sea. One less enemy ship blotting out the horizon.
Aaron turned to his companion and nodded his approval, allowing himself to savor the accomplishment. But the celebration would have to be short. There were still plenty of British ships in the bay, and all were firing at one target. A moment wasted was one that could result in a British victory. Quickly and efficiently, the pair returned to their work, reloading the cannon as a ghost of a smile continued to play across the redhead’s face.
Aaron wasn’t sure when or how he’d managed to fall asleep during the night, but he knew what had woke him up. Silence. Absolute silence. There were no shout’s from militiamen, no explosions of cannon fire. Even the waves, it seemed, had ceased their endless pounding against the shore. The world as he knew it had come to a standstill.
His first response to his peaceful surroundings was panic. Had they run out of ammunition as Sarah had feared? Had the British come shore and taken the fort while he’d so obliviously slumbered? Had the efforts of he and his comrades been for naught? These fears, however, were quickly extinguished when he noticed one very important fact: the banner, worn at the edges and heavy from the water in the breeze, was still there.
Quickly and quietly as a shadow on the wall, the teenager crept to the wall where he had spotted the redcoats’ approach just the morning before, though it felt more like a lifetime ago. He peeked over the slate-gray bricks, mentally prepared for the worst that fate could deal. Instead, the sight that greeted him caused Aaron’s face to split into an enormous grin. Not wasting a single moment, he shook awake his comrade dozing against the cannon’s icy metal.
Sarah’s eyes opened slowly, still clouded by sleep. “What is it? What’s going on?”
“Come and see for yourself!” The boy could hardly contain his own enthusiasm.
“Alright, alright, no need to shout,” she grumbled as she stood up and looked out to the horizon where her friend was pointing. Her sour mood vanished immediately, replaced by a flash of shock and a burst of joy.
Hundreds of British warships, some barely able to stay afloat, were sailing away, and Fort McHenry was still standing. The battle was over, and the redcoats were retreating to recount their failure to a disappointed king. The Americans had survived. They had stood their ground and emerged exultant. After all of their previous failures, they had finally succeeded against the enemy. They had won.
As the other men awoke and shouts of triumph filled the sky, Aaron watched with a smile as the sun glowed through the wispy remains of cannon smoke. Sunrise. A promise for a better day. But this morning, it was more than that. It was a gift, a reward for their courage and loyalty in a battle that had pushed their limits and challenged them as American soldiers. Deep in his heart, Aaron knew that this sunrise had, without doubt, been worth fighting for.