The book begins with an incident when a small detachment of Hessian soldiers encounter a mentally retarded youth on a New England hill-side. Misunderstanding on the part of an exasperated Hessian officer, leads to the execution of the autistic villager as a spy. Outraged, the local people ambush the Hessians and kill all but a drummer boy who escapes. The narrator of the story: the town physician and a Continental Army veteran, subsequently discovers that the young drummer is being sheltered in a Quaker family's barn while village authorities hunt for him. Captured, the Hessian is tried for murder. Although his role in the earlier death was limited to beating his drum as the execution took place, the young Hessian fatally admits that he would have carried out his duty as a soldier and participated directly in the hanging if so ordered. The doctor, himself a victim of prejudice as an English-born Catholic in a small Puritan community, watches helplessly while the German boy is hanged.