Appointed by Polk to lead an army to Santa Fe and take all of New Mexico, Col. Stephen Watts Kearny tempers his recruits into a fighting force in a month's time, patrols the line of march on the trail, reassures the Mexican settlers by diplomacy and a show of respect, and, having taken Santa Fe without a shot, provides for a constitution and code of laws incorporating American practice and Mexican customs; then, heading west to complete his assignment by securing California, he meets Kit Carson carrying the news that Fremont, supposedly scouting, ""has taken California. It is ours."" These two extraordinary episodes, the one a triumph of statesmanship and administration (to equip his forces, he borrowed from a gambling-house proprietor, promising her an escort to the dances), the other to be one of the most bizarre in American history, follow without a break. Mr. Norman keeps equally close tabs on both expeditions, now explaining the butchering of buffalo, now reporting the confrontations between a flabbergasted Kearny and a brashly insubordinate Fremont; naturally, and rightfully, he praises Kearny for protecting the upstart from the worst consequences of his own actions. There is an unfortunately familiar insensitivity toward the Indians generally (Kearny is lauded for guiding the westward ""migration"" of 37,000 Eastern Indians ""without a hitch"" -- this of the infamous Trail of Tears) and a gratuitous reference to Fremont's bearded, oddly-garbed band as resembling ""tough present-day hippies."" Finesse is not the author's forte; attentive dramatic narrative is, take it or leave it.