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This is the eighth chapter of a nine-chapter serial story to be published weekly in NeXt. The story is about life in America leading up to and during the War of 1812. Place names in this story are given and spelled as they were in 1813.

Our story so far: With the American fleet at the other end of Lake Ontario, the British take the opportunity to launch an attack on Sackets Harbor. Caleb has ridden to tell Gen.Brown that the British have been sighted.

Chapter Eight -- The Battle Begins

The sky was just bright enough to chase away the stars as they arrived in Gen. Brown's buggy with Caleb's horse tied behind. Gen. Brown ordered signal guns fired and sent messengers, and, by noon, several hundred militia had arrived from the local farms and towns, most with their own guns and some who needed to be issued muskets, powder and shot.

Having arrived with the general, it seemed natural for Caleb to follow him as he talked to his officers and made plans. It must have looked natural, as well, because people handed him coffee for the general, and Gen. Brown casually sent him on errands.

The British fleet -- six naval ships and several smaller gunboats, followed by a large number of the bateaux normally used for carrying cargo and passengers on the big river -- came in sight near noon, but there was no wind and they couldn't maneuver close enough to shore to land. The Americans kept an eye on them while they continued to prepare for battle.

There were 250 Albany Volunteers on Horse Island, and Brown placed his local militia on the mainland, facing the only spot men could march ashore, a 4-foot wide bar of land that lay just under the water. A long row of gravel, piled up by years of winter lake ice, provided a place where they could lie down and fire their muskets, protected from enemy gunfire.

"They'll land on the island," Brown predicted to his officers, gesturing up toward the buildings near the harbor. "It's far enough away that they can come ashore without our cannons blowing their boats to pieces. As it is, the Old Sow will have a word or two for them."

There were some chuckles over this; "Old Sow" was an enormous cannon in the log fort at the edge of the harbor, and she could fire 32-pound cannon balls farther than the smaller guns.

Gen. Brown looked out over the lake, where several bateaux were rowing away from the fleet, along with gunboats and the long canoes of the Mohawk that had just been unloaded from the ships. "It looks like they're coming," he said. "Col. Backus, if you would have your regulars form up below the fort, I believe we'll be ready to receive our guests."

"Wait," someone said. "They're turning back!"

As they watched the boats change course, Alex came running down from the fort. "It's Chauncey! The fleet is back!" he shouted. He pointed, but Horse Island blocked their view.

"It must be Aspinwall, up from Oswego with volunteers," Col. Backus said quietly. "If the British fly from his small boats, all the better, but they're fools if they do."

The bateaux were heading back to the ships, but the canoes simply changed direction. "The Mohawk are going after them," Brown observed, and soon the gunboats and bateaux joined in the chase.

"If he makes for shore, he'll have a chance," Backus said, but hours later, they learned what had happened: Twelve of the 19 boats were captured and only a little under 200 men, plus Aspinwall, found their way through the woods that night, arriving under a cold drizzle.

Brown ordered the Albany Volunteers to come off the island and take the position behind the gravel bar and moved his militia back into the woods behind them in case any British or Mohawk forces were following Aspinwall's men down the shoreline.

And so the evening ended.

By morning, little had changed and there was still no wind on the lake. Caleb and Alex had slept in the woods with the militia and were standing by Gen. Brown as he watched the British boats row toward shore.

"There's one good thing," Brown said. "They've given up getting their ships closer, so we won't have to worry about their cannons."

He motioned the boys closer. "There's no telling how this day may end," he said. "But it must not end with the British capturing our military supplies and towing away the General Pike. With those supplies, and if they finish building that ship, they would knock us off the lake completely and all of Upper Canada and the Northwest would be theirs. If we fall, one of you must race to the shipyard and give the order to set it all ablaze!"

They nodded, and Caleb glanced at Alex. It was clear, although Gen. Brown had not said it, that he meant whichever of them was still alive must give that order.

Meanwhile, the Albany Volunteers were checking their muskets as they heard the sounds of men coming through the forest on the island, and Brown ordered the militia to be ready.

He waited until the British came from the woods onto the narrow ford, then militia and Volunteers fired at once and the first wave of redcoats fell.

The Volunteers immediately began reloading, but the reaction of the militia was different: They stood and ran away through the woods. Gen. Brown shouted at them to stop, but he might as well have called after stampeding cattle.

The Volunteers fired again and began to fall back, and Brown signaled for the regulars nearer the fort to move forward. The British were gaining the mainland, but the Americans would make them pay for their progress.

Caleb was moving back up the slope with the Volunteers when he heard the general curse and saw a plume of black smoke rising behind the log fort. He looked around.

The shipyard was aflame, and Alex was gone!

Next week: A homecoming.

Made available through the support of the New York Newspapers Foundation and funding from New York State United Teachers. Text copyright 2012, Mike Peterson. Illustrations copyright 2012, Christopher Baldwin.

The author has created a companion blog for readers to offer comments or ask questions. It can be found at http://www.weeklystorybook.com/freehand.