Fort Randall at the southeast corner of South Dakota is the first fort on the upper Missouri River trail protecting pioneers going west beyond Dakota Territory. The corner unlike most of the Great Plain is filled with rivers, lakes, forests and rocky ridges. After Sitting Bull's win at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn the Sioux left for Canada only to return in a few years believing President Grant's treaty promises. 1880s hunters exterminate buffalo to force tribes back to Canada so prospectors can mine Dakota gold. There isn't gold in this South Dakota corner. Tribes maintain the herds to sustain their way of life. It is a deadly game when the two sides clash. Losers of any encounter often are killed.
In 1887 Fort Randall's Major McCoy will use his troops to protect the Yankton Sioux tribe. Captain Cooper and two enlisted troopers lead the effort. Captain Cooper in 1878 guards supply wagons to Great Plains forts. Sergeants, Gibson and Scott have short Texas Ranger careers. They are too good with guns and became cowhands on cattle drives to Dodge City. In Dodge they don't win at poker so they join the Army. These men and two new privates carry out McCoy's mission.
McCoy and Chief Thundercloud agree reservation buffalo hunting must stop and Cooper is the officer to stop it. Cooper and tribal leaders map reservation and surrounding land into sections where buffalo could be found or hides hidden. The tribe reports hunter sightings by section now hunters become the hunted. If found on the reservation hunters are made to leave. This didn't stop hunting so more is done during the cold snowy 1887-88 winter. The Schoolhouse Blizzard, January 12th, alone stops tracking for a month. Braves and cavalry find dead buffalo parts only off the reservation so there is little progress stopping them. Finding kill sites is easy. Where hides are stored isn't but hides can't be moved or sold until spring.
In Burke, the nearest town, a Swedish immigrant new recruit, Private Hugo, gets the answer to how the hides are moved when in the outhouse he hears a hunter named Wales bragging to another drunk about his latest buffalo killings. The more Wales brags the more information he spills to the private. He tells how hunters drag hides to safe locations off the reservation while snow storms cover their tracks. Hugo knows what hunters are doing and how to track them after listening to Wales brag. He learned from his father how to hunt on skis and use sleds to move heavy loads. At the fort he tells the sergeants about the drunk, his story and what he knows about hunting in deep snow. The same day Private Mix and his talent with guns arrive at the fort. The new soldiers are assigned to the cavalry when Captain Cooper is told about Wales. Cooper doesn't know if they can ride horses! Hugo's father can bring skis and a sled to the fort and teach the soldiers how to use them. He will bring them along with his daughter and two friends to help train the soldiers. Captain Cooper agrees and training starts before the skis arrive a day after leaving Yankton. When they do the troops see the women instructors so there are more than enough soldiers to train.
The women, Idun, Geion and Lofn, and the officers want more time together so they will be together again in Yankton for Christmas. Will this be the beginning of romances? Whatever it is will have to wait till after winter.
Swedes used skis, sleds and snowshoes to fight Russians and hunt for over a hundred years. The tribe already has snowshoes. Hugo makes more cross country skis for the tribe with the fort's carpenter tools to move even faster. With the tribe's map of kills and hunter movements, it is easy to quickly narrow searches to the few areas where heavy loads of hides could be stored.
Troopers and tribe scouts operate in teams with Cooper's hunting dog, Fritz, aiding in searches. They find where hides are hidden then retrieve the hides after Hugo turns the fort chuck wagon into a sleigh by putting runners where the wheels go. Braves quickly want runner skis for their travois's. Now teams with skis find and remove hides faster so the hunters are put out of business. As hunters are caught, braves take their rifles and money is used to buy bullets. Finally the snow is melting and still Wales is impossible to catch killing both buffalo and Sioux but he doesn't know the cavalry and tribe already found his store of hides. Wales goes for the hides, finds them gone, is enraged and wants to kill Sioux braves. His chance comes a day later.
On a warm early April day in 1888 the new fort doctor, Gillespie, with three medical supply wagons pass through Burke. Gillespie is a young doctor interested in forensic science. As long as he can remove bullets, apply bandages and dispense shots of whiskey nobody cares about his hobby. Lt Bond and six troopers escort the wagons. Half way to the fort, they hear two rifle shots from a reservation hill. Immediately Sergeants Gibson and Scott ride to where the shots came from. They find two wounded braves and quickly bring them to the wagons. Then up the hill nearest to where the braves are found look for the shooter, find two Sharp rifle shells and tracks going towards Burke. Scott sees a rider on a paint horse wearing a buffalo hide coat and knows who it is. The doctor treats the wounds going to the fort. Unknowingly the hunter made his biggest mistake and will soon pay for it. At the fort the doctor removes and keeps the bullets saving the braves' lives. The Major immediately sends Cooper to tell the Chief about the braves and invite him to the fort. One brave is Thundercloud's son. Will the tribe go on the warpath? No after McCoy convinces him to let the cavalry find the shooters. The attempted murders may have been on the reservation and shooters are now in town creates the problem of who can capture and punish the shooters.
To show what his men can do they put on a shooting demonstration outside the fort for the Chief. There is small pine tree by the fort gate McCoy wants removed and asks the Chief to watch how it will be done. It is now a target as Hugo quickly puts a face on it with 5 pistol shots. Then the others chop down the tree chest high with bullets. Mix gets the tree falling before the sergeants get a shot off. The sergeants say Mix is better with a handgun than John Wesley Harden and he just proved it. Now a plan is to let the Army capture the shooter.
Wales is in town planning his next move and while drinking is spotted by soldiers going back to the fort. After more drinks Wales falls asleep at the stable till the next morning as Cooper and his sergeants, out of uniform, ride into town to get him. Knowing the town sheriff and locals hate the cavalry they bring along Hugo and Mix making it a team of five. Fritz follows to watch the horses, so a team of six is on their way. This is Fritz's reward for finding hides and soon Cooper learns Hugo can do more than make faces on trees with a gun. It is one of those leftover winter days rarely occurring in late April, clear cold and without wind, the troopers dismount and start walking down the empty street. Shutters close on windows, doors slam as smoke rises from chimneys. They prepare for battle, taking positions and determined to do what needs to be done with long guns at the ready. The privates must shoot first to maim or kill if not the hunters surely will. The others passed this test long ago.
It is so cold it reminds the men of what being dead must be like. Mix and Fritz watch the stable so once in no one gets out with more than one working leg. Burke streets are clear so they enter each saloon. Cooper is always first in with a shotgun then the sergeants remove stragglers. Everyone at the tables hits the floor then told to leave by the sergeants while the ones at the bars run out the back doors except for two at the second saloon with a piano player. The piano player cowers behind his piano stool under the keyboard when suddenly there is a shot from behind Cooper. It puts a hole between the eyes of the large naked lady painting behind the bar. Cowboys too drunk to walk hear the shot then jump out a window after seeing the painting. Hugo says "Just me. Fritz is watching the horses" so Cooper asks him where he learned to shoot. His reply is "In Sweden hunting polar bears. You only get one shot". The next stop is the stable with Mix and Fritz outside making sure no one goes in or out. One who tries has a hole in his hat and a dog bite in his backside.
Two men and Wales with his paint horse are at the stable trying to get away. There will be a fight and the troopers can't wait to finish it. The hunter loads his rifle and is bringing it up to fire getting knee high when Cooper's buckshot takes him down. Wales shouts "Why did you shoot me in the knee?" Cooper replies "I was aiming higher". Doc Gillespie will fix him up, give him a crutch for his trial and keep the paint horse as payment. Cooper has his rifle. Wales's wagon crew is looking into Peacemaker barrels. Unfortunately the sergeants don't get to pull triggers like the privates did. So much for the fight they looked forward to instead the hunter's wagon is hitched up for a ride to the fort with three passengers hogtied in the back.
Mix, Hugo and Fritz bring up the rear with the hunter's Sharp. Cooper will not know how important that is until the trial. Leaving the stable Cooper and Hugo bring the sergeants' horses and the paint to the fort. Nobody in Burke will question this arrest but in case they do, Lt. Bond is just outside of town with twenty troopers as drunken outraged "citizens" get enough courage to saddle up to get their friends back. Seeing the troops ready to charge they go back to the town. The saloon regulars are still shaking in their boots as they grumble and boast how brave they could have been until the piano player's bullet hole in the painting explanation gets around.
At the fort, plans are made to try the hunters in Yankton. The crime happened on US land so if the hunters object they will be turned over to the tribe. If guilty their fate is the same but likely less painful with the Army. After the trial the troopers and doctor will visit with the ski instructors and their friends for a few days. For the troopers and the women romances begin.
At the trial no one saw who did the shooting so how is Wales convicted? The most important fact is the bullet markings on the two bullets the doctor took from the braves match a test bullet fired from Wales' Sharp rifle! As early as 1835 it is known that rifled barrels leave marks on bullets so the barrel rifling process makes every barrel unique. The verdict is the wagon crew spends 5 years in prison and Wales hangs without his boots on.
The Chief honors troopers and the doctor at a tribal party for his son's return. The Major brings imported firewater bottles and Fritz comes along. They hope he doesn't leave too many future Fritzes while at the party. As the firewater is passed around, a brave asks what a polar bear is and could it beat a grizzly bear in a fight. Hugo hasn't seen a grizzly so he has no answer. Then he says that his uncle hunts fish as big as three buffalo in a canoe the size of four horses with a spear. Fortunately it is the time to leave because whaling stories take so long to tell. The chief presents each soldier and the doctor a Sioux beaded vest. All know the value of what they accomplished together as Plains tribes need buffalo for survival more than farmers need bones for fertilizer. In the future there will be buffalo raised on ranches nearby and a buffalo preservation reserve on the open range not far to the west.
In 1889 buffalo pouching ends and so will the careers of the captain and sergeants. The fort will close soon after while the tribe's reservation remains to this day. Before leaving Cooper overheard a trooper call him "Old one shot" and knew it is time to go. He and the sergeants leave the Army now that rapid firing rifles, Maxim guns and breech loading cannons means being on a horse in a battle lost its appeal.
Hugo asks if Cooper and the sergeants will see the women ski instructors again. Yes! The three ride to Yankton. Private Hugo has a Presidential West Point appointment. He will charge up San Juan Hill with a buffalo hunter, Teddy Roosevelt. Mix will star in movies. An old Tombstone marshal living in Hollywood asks him over lunch "Why only three shots? " Mix answers "Only needed to shoot one rat to get the job done. Two shots were just for attention and the job was over before noon".