During the winter of 1876, a few months before Little Bighorn, veteran army scout Chris Hardeman tries to arrange a peaceful compromise between the Army and the Sioux--in this long, earnest, rather preachy and predictable first novel. In late 1875 the US orders that all the free-roaming Sioux must be brought within the confines of the Dakota reservation immediately. So the troops of Gen. George Crook are advancing north into the Wyoming Terrority--ready to round up the last of the hostile bands there, prepared for gruesome combat. Aging scout Hardeman, however, has witnessed Indian massacres before--and is determined to prevent another one. He therefore teams up with Johnny Smoker, adoptive grandchild of Sioux chief Sun Horse (fictional cousin to Sitting Bull), for a peace-mission: they hope the near-starving Sioux will voluntarily move to the reservation. . . in return for food, protection, and/or a delay till summer. And along the way to Sun Horse's village Hardeman and Johnny stop at the Putnam cattle-ranch, where the residents--Lisa Putnam, her mountain man Uncle Bat (married to a squaw), her black partner Julius--are all sympathetic to the land-claims of their Indian neighbors. Eventually, then, Hardeman meets with Sun Horse--a wily sort who sends the scout (together with Bat Putnam and Sun Horse's heir) on a fairly hopeless peace-pipe mission to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Meanwhile, an avalanche near the Putnam ranch strands a traveling circus there: young Johnny quickly falls for sweet young trouper Amanda, who's secretly the mistress of circus owner Tatum. Meanwhile, too, a section of Crook's snow-chilled cavalry, under Major Corwin (badly wounded) and Lieut. Whitcomb (a plucky neophyte), is tangling with the Indians--before Hardeman can achieve a peaceful compromise. And, after Hardeman returns from his bloody failure of a mission to the Putnam ranch, there'll be a series of increasingly contrived climaxes: the death of Uncle Bat, ever loyal to his adopted Indian kin; romance between Hardeman and Lisa (who just happens to be the bygone sweetheart of dying Major Corwin); and evil Tatum's abduction of Amanda--which leads to a siege/shootout, a grand sacrifice. . . and (despite the looming massacres) a flicker of white/Indian brotherhood. First-novelist Cooke, lumbering from one subplot to another, offers a slow, thickly upholstered, but essentially thin narrative here--especially in the first half, which is dragged down with constant backtracking and soggy exposition. The characters, despite lots of hard-working amplification, remain stiff and bloodless. And, while at least one Indian atrocity is graphically described, the plight of the persecuted Sioux receives didactic, platitudinous treatment. For some readers, Cooke's solid research, dense detail, and good intentions may be enough; others will prefer the more pointed Indian-wars fiction of Douglas C. Jones--or such non-fiction as Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star (p. 725).