By James Fenimore Cooper
A mysterious traveler arrives at the front door of a home in Virginia. It is raining, so the owner of the house, Mr. Wharton, lets the man enter, inside. The man is reluctant to discuss the revolutionary war with the host because he is a Patriot, and he does not want his loyalties to be discovered. Later that day, a strange man arrives at the home. This man is Mr Wharton's son, Henry, and he came in disguise to not be known as a British officer. The young man had come from the British camp all the way to his home so that he could see his family again. The Wharton family are afraid that the stranger who arrived, called Harper, could betray Henry if he was a Patriot.
Harper makes known to the family that he knows who Henry is, and reassures them that he will not betray the young man, then he retires to his apartments to let the family be together by themselves. The peddler, Harvey Birch, arrives at the Wharton house. The man sells a few things to the Wharton daughters, which are named Sarah and Frances. Frances, the younger of the two, wants to hear about the war, and is told, to her great satisfaction, that the Patriots were winning it.
After that day, Harper rides away, but before leaving, he tells his host's son that he should leave, but the man does not agree. The peddler also asks him to leave, but again he says he will not go away from his parent's home. Harvey spots a group of boats with soldiers in them. He believes that they are British troops, and Henry says that he will get an escort from them, and will go to the camp with them.
Some dragoons go to the Wharton family home, led by Captain John Lawton. He asks the family if they had hosted a man named Mr Harper, and Mr Wharton says that they had hosted him, but that he had left. The Virginian sees through the Henry's disguise, and tells him to take it off so that he could see the man. The commander does so, and the Virginian introduces himself as Captain John Lawton, and the commander introduces himself as Henry Wharton, captain in the British army. Frances is thrilled when she hears that Major Dunwoodie was going to say what was going to be done with Henry because she believes that he shall spare her brother since they were family. The officers were invited to dine at the Wharton family home, and while eating they saw some of the things that Birch sold to the family. The family learn from the dragoons that the peddler was wanted by the American army to be imprisoned.
Dunwoodie enters the Wharton family home to decide what should be done with a British officer that his troops had captured. When he sees that the officer is in-fact his love's brother, he is torn between what to do with the man. He finds a forged pass on Henry bearing the name Washington. Peyton believes that he will have to imprison Henry, but is approached by Francis, she tells him that Henry was imprudent and asks for his release. She said that if Dunwoodie would free her brother, she would marry, and follow him wherever he went.
Suddenly, some regulars are spotted, so the American troops prepare an ambush. Frances sends a message to Dunwoodie that asks him to come to her. When he arrives, she acknowledges that she was harsh, and she asks him to be prudent in the battle. They make up, and are friends again.
The British troops that were spotted form up and attack the American lines, but they are routed and chased off the battlefield. While the troops are chasing away the British soldiers, Henry escapes, and he rides away. While riding, Henry meets Harvey Birch, who gives him directions to help him flee. He meets soldiers led by Colonel Wellmere. He joins the British ranks, and helps attack the Americans. Likewise, he is reluctant to do it because there was a troop of hidden Dragoons near the brook. The soldiers led by Major Dunwoodie form up and a battle ensues. Henry is shot in the arm, and gets hurt. Not being able to control his horse, it rides up to John Lawton, so he is recaptured. Meanwhile, the American troops win the fight, but a few soldiers from the British side form up in the woods, and are too strong to be attacked. Henry is taken back to the American ranks, and the Surgeon inspects his arm.
Henry is taken back to his home and informs his family that the American troops had won the battle. Dunwoodie comes inside the house and asks the inhabitants if they can host one of his friends, who was badly wounded in their home. Mr Wharton agrees and takes the man inside, hoping that this gesture of kindness would convince Henry's captor to let him go.
After the surgeon arrives and starts operating on Dunwoodie's friend, the man tells the Major that his friend, Captain George Singleton, would probably live. Frances is annoyed that Major Dunwoodie pays attention only to his friend. The Major was concerned because he thought George Singleton would die, but after he found out that his friend would live, he was overjoyed.
Colonel Wellmere was also captured by Major Dunwoodie and was brought to the house. Wellmere's appearance makes Sarah happy. Dunwoodie tells one of his soldiers to call for the injured man's sister to take care of him.
Captain Lawton and his men are talking when they see a person in the dark. They recognize him as Harvey Birch, so they chase him. Harvey knew he was spotted, so he ran towards the treeline so that he would not be seen, then he tried to go to the forest. Some dragoons had cut him off, so he fell to the ground and was passed without being seen. He then ran to the forest and entered inside. While running, Harvey hears the sound of Lawton's voice very near him, telling him to stop or die. Captain Lawton's horse tripped, and the peddler took the man's sword and is about to kill him when he rethinks and runs. The peddler escapes, and the American troops want to burn down Harvey's home, but Lawton does not allow them.
The captain goes to the home of the Wharton family and is inspected for broken bones.
Harvey's father was sick with a mortal illness. Caesar was sent to him to bring him food, the man was there to help the maid of the home, Katy, take care of the dying father of Harvey. Birch enters the home and asks if his dad is alive, and is told that he is. He goes inside the room with his father, but is interrupted by some robbers called the Skinners that were masquerading as American soldiers. Their leader, demands all of Harvey's gold and is about to kill him when another robber tells him to stop, or they will not have the reward for him. The peddler gives them some of his money, but they want all of it. Harvey says that they can have all of it if they let him stay with his father and receive his blessing. Harvey tells them where it is, but Katy tries to conceal it so that she can have some of his gold. They prepare to take Harvey with them to get the reward offered by the American troops, but right as they are about to take him away, Harvey's father exits his room. Everyone, except Harvey, believed he was a ghost and ran away. Harvey is given the blessing and the old man dies.
Harvey's housekeeper goes to the Wharton home. She tells the inhabitants of the house how her master was robbed and his father died. The housekeeper, Katy, said that now Birch was a beggar, and couldn't pay her for her services to him. Captain Lawton fell off his horse and bruised his shoulder. A doctor is patching him up and is talking to him about how if he found Harvey, he would hang him. Lawton said that if he caught Harvey, he would not kill him but punish him justly.
Henry Wharton wakes up after having troubled dreams of his arm being amputated by a surgeon. George is told that in a week or two he will be all right. George, the wounded dragoon, thinks that he had seen a spirit walking around his bed when he pretended to sleep, but in reality it was Sarah. He is also told that he will meet his sister within the hour. He asks who sent for his sister and is told that the Major had sent for her. Sarah says that she does not agree with the surgeon who was brought by Major Dunwoodie, and wants him to be sent away because the doctor told her that Colonel Wellmere was not sick at all, but was suffering from annoyance.
Isabelle, George's sister, is informed that she can visit her brother, who is out of danger. She rushes to him, and they hug, but after that George wants to see the Major. Isabelle says that she thought she would meet Dunwoodie there, but she is informed by her brother that the major was doing his duty for the country.
A dinner feast was being prepared, so much food was made that the tables which were holding it groaned from the weight. Colonel Wellmere is talking to Dr. Sitgreaves about the war. Wellmere says that the British viewed the Americans as a people who rebelled against the rule of the King of England.
Harvey Birch is attending the burial of his father. Along with him came Mr. Wharton and Henry, the latter's son.
After the burial, Harvey sells his home to a speculator and gives some of the price of the house, to Katy, his housekeeper.
He is about to be taken away by Skinners which were brought there by the speculator. Katy gives fifteen Guineas to the men to let Harvey have an hour to run, but they take the money and leave after burning down the home.
Frances is going to check on Miss Singleton when she sees an image of a man in the lady's hand. Frances listens to a song that the other woman was singing. The song is sad and upon finishing it, Isabella sees Frances. She tells her that she was melancholic because it was raining outside and because her brother was badly injured. Isabella asks Frances a few questions about Dunwoodie and asks Frances if she loves him. Isabella says that she is sorry for her outburst, and the two women hug.
Meanwhile, Sarah and Wellmere are talking. After this, Sarah retires, feeling more light-hearted than ever since her brother's arrest because she got to spend more time with the person whom she loved.
Elizabeth Flanagan was a sutler who sold stuff to Dunwoodie's soldiers. We are told about her that she invented the drink called cocktail which the soldiers liked. The soldiers in the camp are all partying because they had captured two British officers. Captain Lawton, Major Dunwoodie, and the surgeon sing songs to the soldiers. Harvey Birch is brought to Major Dunwoodie. He has a paper that would have potentially saved him, but he swallows it and says that the secret on the paper will die with him.
Harvey is taken to a small storage room which belonged to Betty, but was not used by her currently. The guard, Seargent Hollister, suggests that Harvey should confess to any sins that he did so that he would not die with them upon his consciousness. Harvey says that if he has anything to confess, he will lay down his sins at Jesus' feet. The dragoon says that he believes that if you want to get into heaven, you have to avoid three great sins, stealing, murder, and desertion. The seargent believes that Harvey had deserted his country by providing information to the British, who were the enemy.
Captain Lawton and the Skinners walk together outside of Betty's "hotel". The leader of the Skinners starts a conversation about how much better he would be in Major Dunwoodie's position. He thinks that Lawton agrees with him. During the walk, Lawton remarks that they are villains. The Skinner chief raises a gun at Lawton, but it is batted away by the other man's saber. The Skinners ask him if they can have their money, and the captain gives it to them, and orders his soldiers to whip them because they stole, burned, and murdered. The Skinners rush to a rocky outcrop and try to fire at the captain and his soldiers, but they find out that the latter had taken the flint out of their guns, except the leader's gun. He shoots at the captain but misses. Lawton goes to his room and sees Betty. He asks her what she was doing out there, and she says that she was picking plants before the moon would rise so that the plants would heal the soldiers. Betty sneaks up to the hill where the Skinners were and scares them by pretending to call the captain and his soldiers. She enters their camp and takes some food and clothes from them.
The peddler escapes from his cell by disguising himself as Betty. He has the chance to kill Dunwoodie, but does not do that to prove that he is a good man. The major does not tell anyone about his encounter and pretends not to know what happened when his troops discover the cell is empty. Seargent Hollister and Betty talk about whether the peddler that they had captured was actually the devil. Hollister asks Betty to reform because this incident was a sign for her to repent.
Henry is taken away from the Locusts. Dunwoodie rides to Frances' home. There he meets the girl who is convinced that he loves Isabelle Singleton and that she would be a bad wife for him, being the sister of a British officer. He tries to gain her love, but she coldly rejects him time and time again. He is sad, but has an army to command, and he has to go and fight in the war. Frances is sorrowful that she "cannot" marry her love and because her brother is in danger.
The doctor and Lawton are left back at the camp to take care of the wounded soldiers. Archibald says that he wants to dissect the dead peddler but is informed that the man had escaped. Sitgrave and Lawton decide to go to the cottage of the Wharton family. On the way there, they noticed that someone had thrown a rock at them. Attached to this rock is a small piece of paper with a riddle on it. Captain Lawton climbs up the rocks with his horse and sees a man running away. Lawton tells Archibald to shoot him, but the other man does not do it, but shouts to the running person to stop. The escaping man does not obey, but shoots at the doctor. The two friends arrive at the locusts and the captain sees Colonel Wellmere leaning towards Sarah. He leaves them alone, but when Archibald sees Wellmere, he thinks that the Colonel was sick with a fever, but is told otherwise. He also tries to diagnose the lady but is rejected by her.
Captain Lawton finds another note, written by the peddler, warning him that he would be attacked at midnight. Lawton is invited to attend a party at the Wharton family home. He goes there with Archibald, and is informed that Sarah and Wellmere were getting married. He is also told that the British army had sent a troop of soldiers to take Wellmere back to their army. Along with them, they had brought a priest who was going to wed Sarah and the Colonel. Sarah's aunt notices that Frances is missing, so she finds her and brings her to the wedding. Wellmere does not have a ring to give Sarah, and Archibald offers to give one of his sister's old rings to her.
Archibald sends Caesar to take a letter to Hollister to give the ring to him. On the way there, Caesar sees a man walking in a graveyard, he believes this man is Harvey's father. The servant arrives at Hollister's camp, and gives him the letter written by Archibald. All of a sudden, the peddler enters and tells them to go and save Lawton, then leaves. Hollister is convinced by Betty that he should go and help Lawton. Caesar leaves with the ring, while the troops of Hollister approach the Locusts.
Right in the middle of the marriage ceremony, the peddler barges in and tells Sarah that Wellmere was already married. The poor girl faints, while Wellmere is challenged to a duel by Lawton. Wellmere shoots first and misses, then out of nowhere some Skinners attack Lawton from behind. Lawton throws one of them off him and gets away. He meets up with his troops coming from the Four Corners camp. They rush back to the cottage, which was sent on fire by the Skinners. Lawton rushes inside and saves Frances, and Sarah is saved by the peddler. Sarah believes that she is in heaven and does not want to be convinced otherwise.
Dr Sitgreaves says that the only medicine for Sarah would be for her to be taken care of and to be loved. Everybody is taken away to the Four Corners, where they would regroup. Before he leaves, Lawton hides some valuables so that his troops are not tempted to loot them. He is about to leave when Katy runs out of the ruin. He takes her along with him all the way back to the Four Corners. When they arrive there, Isabelle and Lawton try to fix some broken windows, but Isabelle gets shot. Lawton chases the man who shot her down, but he escapes.
Isabelle tells Frances that Dunwoodie never loved her and that Frances would be a good match for her. The wounded girl dies, and is buried near the Four Corners. Lawton goes to check on the sentries at the burned cottage, and they see a black object moving around. Lawton rides to it and sees that it is, in fact, a man in a black dress. This man is revealed to be the British priest who preformed the ceremony in the cottage. Dunwoodie sends orders to Lawton to go to him and help fight the battle. He also sends orders to move the Wharton family to where the trial of Henry was being held.
Wharton and his family go towards the location of Henry's trial. On the way there, Sarah is beginning to look as if she is realizing what had happened in the previous days. When she realizes, she always looks sad; the family wish she would not think about it so that she would be happy. They have to ascend to the Highlands up a steep road. Frances and Katy get out of the cart, and talk about Harvey, and the war. They reach the top and Frances sees a man who looks like Birch near a hut. He enters inside of it, and Dunwoodie and some men arrive, where Frances and Katy are sitting. The major and his men lead the party to the place where Henry was being judged.
Henry is judged. His father, Caesar, and Dunwoodie are defending Henry in the trial by telling everyone how Henry did not spy but visited his family. Frances makes a stand for her brother, but reveals that he met Harvey at their house, thus condemning her brother to death without knowing it. The president of the comity, Colonel Singleton, says that the trial is over, and they will decide what would happen to Henry. Frances tells Singleton that she took care of his daughter before she died, and pleaded for her brother to be judged by Washington. The Colonel says that he will go to Washington and beg for Henry's freedom.
A messenger comes back to the Whartons and informs them that Washington condemned Henry to death. He tells Frances that she should marry Dunwoodie, who can protect her and her family. Frances tells the Major about Harper. He goes to try and find him, but cannot. He comes back and asks her to describe Harper again in more detail. She elaborates on his visit, and how he promised to help Henry if he would be in a bad situation. Dunwoodie thinks that Henry is safe.
The landlady tells Henry that she knows a minister to help him repent of his sins before he dies. The minister comes, and reproves miss Peyton nastily until she leaves the room. He reveals himself to be Harvey Birch to the captured British officer, and makes Henry and Caesar switch clothes. He puts some makeup on Henry to make him look black. They both get away, but the sentinel discovers that Henry is gone, and that Caesar is there in his place. He alerts the guard, and they rush after the two "villains".
Henry and Harvey get past all the sentinels, and they run for it because they were discovered. They goad their horses forward and get to a crossroad. They take the left path, then cross over to the right side to throw off their pursuers. They climb up a hill, then they get off their horses and escape in the underbrush. After losing the peddler and the British officer, the dragoons go back to their camp and decide to send word to Dunwoodie about the situation.
Frances decides that to find her brother and help him in some way. She goes to the hut where she thought she saw Harvey. She finds Mr Harper inside the home, so she enters in and begs for her brother's life. He reassures her that he will keep his promise to Henry, but warns her not to tell anyone about him, then he hides in a cavern adjacent to the hut. Harvey and Henry come in and are surprised to see Frances there. Harvey advises Henry to leave with him right away. They leave and Frances returns home, guided by Harper.
Frances arrives home and marries Dunwoodie, giving Henry enough time to escape, Dunwoodie receives a message from Washington not to capture Henry anymore but instead to fight the English in a battle at Croton.
Harvey and Henry cross the border into the neutral ground. They see a troop of British soldiers, but they do not join them because nearby were some rebel soldiers waiting to attack. They go across the Hudson and go to sleep in the nearby woods. They wake up and spot the Skinners' leader, who says he will pay them if they help him get past the British sentinels. Henry takes his gun and they go to the Hudson harbor. There he gets on a ship and leaves to go to Harlem city. Harvey and the Skinner are stopped by some British soldiers, and the peddler was allowed to pass because he had a permit, while the Skinner was detained.
Lawton is sent to shadow the British troops that are to be attacked by Dunwoodie. He meets up with some militia, who say that they will attack before Dunwoodie arrives. The following morning, the American Militia gets beaten by the British, but when Lawton rallies them, he is killed in combat. When Dunwoodie arrives, he tries to avenge his friend but fails, and is hurt. He retires and lives on his plantation with his new family.
Harvey Birch is called to speak with George Washington. The general offers the peddler some money, but it is refused by the man. Washington releases Harvey from his command and lets him go, saying that he will be the peddler's secret friend forever and shall support him if he ever needs it. Harvey leaves and is never heard of again.
During a battle on the banks of the Niagara, Captain Wharton Dunwoodie (the son of Major Dunwoodie and Frances) and Lieutenant Mason Jr, take a break from fighting. An old man carrying a pack listens as they share their memories of the Wharton family. A British artillery barrage shoots the field, wounding Mason and killing the old man. Dunwoodie picks up a small tin box which was in the hands of the old man. In it is a piece of paper stating that Harvey Birch was never a spy for the British.