The book begins with an incident in 1781 when a small detachment of Hessian soldiers encounter a mentally retarded man, Saul Chamberlain, on a Connecticut hill-side. Chamberlain follows the jagers out of confused curiosity, making meaningless markings on a slate. Misunderstanding the situation, an exasperated Hessian officer with little English becomes convinced that Chamberlain is a spy and has the autistic villager hanged from a tree. Outraged, the local population 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 Hans Pohl is being sheltered in a Quaker family's barn while township authorities hunt for him. Captured, the Hessian boy is tried for murder. Although his role in the earlier death was limited to beating his drum as the hanging took place, Pohl fatally admits that he would have carried out his duty as a soldier and participated directly in the execution 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.