When Sam Meeker returns home from college in the spring of 1775 and announces that he has decided to enlist in the Rebel army, his parents are appalled, but his younger brother, Tim, is wide-eyed with admiration. When the brothers are outside together doing chores around their family's tavern, Sam confides in Tim his plan to steal their father's gun in order to fight. Tim protests, but he can do nothing to stop Sam. That night, Mr. Meeker and Sam have an argument about the war and Sam runs away from home. The next morning after church, Tim visits Sam in a hut where he is hiding out. He tries to talk Sam out of going to war, but without success. In the hut, Sam's girlfriend Betsy Read asks Tim which side he supports, and Tim has trouble deciding between his Father's loyalty to the British government and his brother's loyalty to the idea of an independent nation. He does not answer. Sam leaves, and after several months Betsy notifies Tim that Sam has returned. Tim finds an excuse to visit his brother when Rebel soldiers enter his house and violently demand his father's gun, which is with Sam. Tim runs to Sam's hideout, steals the gun and runs, but is soon over taken by Sam. Together they return to the house and find that their parents have been spared.
Time passes and a neighbor, Mr. Heron, stops by the tavern and asks Tim to deliver some letters for him. Tim's father says no, but Tim, hoping for a taste of the kind of adventure that Sam is having, sneaks away to do it. While he is walking down the street with the letter in hand, Betsy sees the letter and wrestles it away, convinced that it contains spy information on Sam (it does not). Tim spends the summer around the tavern and then he goes on a trading journey with his father to Verplancks Point, his first trip away from home and his first encounter with his cousins. On the way there they are stopped by "cow- boys," Rebel roadside terrorists, who harass them a bit. On the way back Tim's father is kidnapped by the same cow-boys. Tim outsmarts them, saves himself, and has to bring the wagon of goods home on his own. Because of this experience, he matures overnight and takes control of the maintenance of the tavern, excited about impressing Sam with his new knowledge and competency.
In the spring of 1777, British soldiers troop into the Meeekers' hometown of Redding, Connecticut, and Tim watches as they ruthlessly kill men and boys, including one of his own close friends. He has trouble deciding where his loyalty lies. The Rebels have kidnapped his father, yet the British are plundering his town. The day the British come through, the Rebel troops follow, and Tim is able to see his brother. They reunite happily and Tim learns that Sam has decided to reenlist. Tim disapproves, but he realizes that arguing will not change Sam's mind.
Several months later, Tim and his mother hear the news that his father has died on a prison ship. Now Tim truly becomes the man of the house, taking care of his mother and the tavern and making financial and trading decisions. Tim must decide what to do with the eight cows he and his mother have received as payment for their tavern goods. He wants to sell them for a profit. Sam returns to Redding with his troops and advises Tim to kill the cows and hide the meat so as to prevent cattle theft, but Tim is hesitant. Eventually, two men try to steal the cows from the barn, and when Sam runs out to stop them, the men grab him and frame him as the cattle thief. Since cattle stealing has been a problem in the armed forces, General Putnam is determined to make an example out of somebody. Both Tim and his mother talk to the rebel officers, pleading Sam's innocence, but the general will not change his mind. Tim tries to break into the encampment and save his brother, but nothing comes of it. On February 16, 1779, Tim looks on as Sam is publicly shot.