Ronald Reagan in the Old West. It seems like a natural fit—he did, after all, star in a number of Hollywood westerns. But more than that, the Reagan story reads like a western. He was a plain-speaking man who came into town and took on the bad guys, rallied the townspeople, got shot, triumphed over adversity, and turned around the fortunes of the town. To conservatives and fans of Reagan, parts of his story have already become legend, and in this novel I have set out to mythologize that legend using the Old West as the backdrop.
My novel Railhead is set in 1869, just after completion of the transcontinental railroad, in the mythical town of Goshen, Wyoming (fashioned after the famous Hell on Wheels towns of Cheyenne, Laramie, and Julesburg). The narrator is Peter Hammond, a young newspaper man traveling west to chronicle the first coast to coast trip on the Union Pacific Railroad. The main character is Robert Riordan, who should feel very familiar to the reader. Through a combination of chance and fate, he becomes allied with Peter and others in an effort to save the town of Goshen from forces seeking to destroy it.
The major themes are all there: turning around the economy, taking on unions and entitlements, the battle against the evil empire, the home-spun wisdom, the eternal optimism and the bigger-than-life personality. The style is very Louis L’Amour-ish and I have drawn from a number of Reagan biographies and reminiscences to structure my tale and paint my picture of Robert Riordan. Yet, despite the allegory, the novel can be read and enjoyed as purely an action western.
The story is told years later by an older and wiser Peter Hammond. Besides political allegory layered under action western, there is a love story between Pete and a spirited suffragette named Anna Bates. Many characters are drawn from the history of Wyoming—the Moyer brothers, Big Steve Long, Luke Murrin and the Copperhead newspaperman Leigh Freemen—while others are patterned after key figures in the Reagan Era. Aficionados will also pick up allusions to Reagan westerns and Louis L’Amour novels.
The viewpoint and tone of the novel can best be appreciated, I think, by reading the novel’s preface.
Ref. No. wr120707
Length: 71,240 words
From The Book
An historical fiction novel
The golden spike that marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. After six years of toil and trouble, the great enterprise that promised to unite the country from coast to coast and provide a passage to the scented treasures of India was completed. Five days later on May 15, the first train service was offered from New York to San Francisco. Adventurers, businessmen, speculators, families seeking a new start, and journalists looking to chronicle the grand journey clamored on board. I was one of those travelers in the Spring of 1869. I was twenty-five years old and an eager newspaperman when I boarded the train west.
That was over forty years ago and after reviewing my journal I recall that my emigrant class ticket cost $70 which was paid for by my editor. There was also a small meal allowance and the promise of a ticket home that my editor made dependent on my posting every Friday a travel-story full of “wit and verve” for the Sunday edition. My persistence and the fact that I was a bachelor helped me win this plum assignment and I had every confidence in my success.
Brimming with this youthful confidence, I remember taking the trolley and train from Portland, Maine down to New York and standing in that bustling station waiting to board, recalling even the color of my ticket (red) and the smell of coal smoke and steam. My head was full of adventure, of buffaloes and wild Indians, lawless towns and gunfighters, of the great mountains and the vast Pacific Ocean. The possibility that I was about to embark on a journey much different than the one intended never entered my mind.
I have tried to write this story before but something always got in the way. There was my job or pressing commitments that always seemed to tax my energy, and I was never able to keep the steam up to get her going. But now I have set my mind to it—set my mind to putting this story down on paper once and for all and making sure it gets told right. There are two reasons for this and the first reason is the simplest: I’m the only one who can tell the story of Robert Riordan; I was there with him in Goshen, Wyoming between 1869 and 1872 and saw it all.
The second reason that’s twisted my tail and got my blood up is the troubling habit I see nowadays of trying to turn criminals into heroes. This has always been the predilection of dime novelists, but lately I have seen this same foolishness crop up in magazines and history books. One might forgive a journalist (on occasion) for painting up a story to get it to sell but when ‘historians’ get into the act by calling a cold-blooded killer like Jesse James a hero, or claim the great tamers of the west were men like Wild Bill Hickok or Doc Holliday (grifters and gamblers, one and all) then all one can say who lived through those times is enough is enough. It comes time to balance the ledger.
The men who settled the west were risk-takers but not gamblers. They were businessmen, builders, organizers and peace-makers, men of faith and leaders of communities who prized law and order. Robert Riordan was one of these men and much more. In his time he was called a ‘Lincoln man’ and a ‘Railroad man’ but these terms attested more to his politics than to his character. He was a gentleman who clearly saw the line between good and evil, who held no illusions about the nature of man but had a high view of human possibility. He was a leader who not only brought people to what could be but also what should be.
I admired ‘Butch’ Riordan for a number of reasons, the funny thing being that I didn’t fully appreciate his talents at the time but came to that appreciation after years of reflection and experience. The one virtue that stands out after all these years was his modesty; he did not seek notoriety or demand credit for good works but was content to share success with those less worthy of it. A refreshing virtue that, especially in a man who was not without ambition. But it is this very kind of quiet hero who is first to be forgotten and why I’ve come to tell his tale.
This is how I remember it.
Conservatives and fans of Ronald Reagan are the primary audience for this novel. The last twenty years has seen a series of best-selling books on Reagan, from Dinesh D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader to Peter Hannaford’s Remembering Reagan all the way up to the more recent Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom and the popular An American Life: The Autobiography. The audience is large and loyal.
The secondary audience for this novel are readers of action westerns, fans of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, who enjoy a lively tale set in the old west that embodies the simple virtues of courage and determination that they grew up with. This audience is largely male, older, conservative, and loves to read. It’s very likely that a large majority of this audience has watched Ronald Reagan in Santa Fe Trail more than once on Turner Classic Movies. The subject matter and genre are a comfortable fit.
In terms of competitive titles, there is not another book out there like this one. It is historical fiction wrapped in political allegory presented as an action western. There is no Reagan biographer or, for that matter, any author using Reagan as their subject matter who has attempted to transport Reagan in time. It’s unique—a familiar story told in a new way within the iconic props of the old west—and a fresh attempt at American myth-making.
About the Author
Born in Minneapolis, I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over fifty years. I am a graduate of Cal Berkeley (Class of ’76), been married for twenty-six years, have two grown children and one granddaughter. A writer most of my life, I realized early on that I needed a real job in order to raise a family and pay the mortgage and have been with the same company for thirty-one years.
In 2008 my novel Beggar King was published by James A. Rock & Company, Publishers, Rockville, Maryland. It is also historical fiction and is set in 1214 BC in Ancient Greece. The story is a behind-the-scenes retelling of the epic tale of Odysseus and his return home after years of war and wandering. My royalties were minimal and J.A. Rock & Company has since gone out of business.
I have always been attracted to heroes and myth—from Odysseus to William Wallace to Ronald Reagan. There is not another historical figure in the twentieth century (except for Winston Churchill) who rises to level of mythic hero like Ronald Reagan. His clear vision and ability to articulate enduring truths inspired many, including myself, and has brought me to this book as a form of tribute.
The novel is 71,240 words long with a preface, nineteen chapters, and an epilogue.
Peter Hammond begins his retrospective tale in the New York City train station on a Monday in May, 1869. He gets settled in the men-only emigrant car and meets Pat Dunn, an Irish tracklayer heading west to work on the “Denvur line.” The two men strike up a quiet friendship and become travel companions as the train makes its way west.
As a young and eager journalist on assignment for the Eastern Argus, Pete is on the lookout for dignitaries and persons of interest. At an eating stop in Dixon, IL, he recognizes Robert Riordan who he met and interviewed as a student journalist at Bowdoin College five years earlier. Riordan, a former Captain in the Union Army, is a well-known Republican and popular orator. Pete approaches Riordan, who is sitting with his wife, and introduces himself. Riordan is cordial but leery of east coast newspapermen, his wife Helen slightly hostile, but once they learn Pete is an Illinois farm boy, they warm up to him and invite him to their Pullman car the next morning for the interview. During the interview, Pete is captivated by Riordan’s bright vision of the transcontinental railroad and America as well as the older man’s infectious good humor. The Riordans in turn take a liking to the young man.
Later in the trip, after they board the Union Pacific and pull out of Omaha, Pete can’t help but notice three women sitting in the men-only car. Two of the women are older and matronly-looking, but the third is a young, red-haired beauty. At the next rest stop, Pete introduces himself to the three women but quickly gets into a spirited tit-for-tat with the young lady and leaves with his tail between his legs. He meets a fellow journalist who informs him that the older women are Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony, the young woman Anna Bates, and they are headed to the Wyoming Territory to push for the women’s vote.
Back in his seat next to Pat Dunn, Pete is trying to get Anna out of his head by writing in his log and watching the passing countryside when a loud drunk brushes past him. The drunk stops next to the three women and directs his interests towards Anna, singing loudly to her. He is a big man with a menacing presence and the other passengers keep their distance. Pete reacts to the drunk’s harassment of Anna by getting up and intervening, which leads to Pete staggering the drunk with a right cross. The drunk, suddenly sober, pulls a large Bowie knife and comes at Pete but stops when he sees Pat Dunn holding a gun on him from behind Pete. Order is restored and the drunk is expelled from the train, threatening to “remember” both men. Pete thinks he sees gratitude in Anna’s face but he’s not sure, and he is abruptly dismissed by one of the matrons. “That will teach me to stick my nose in where it don’t belong,” he tells Pat. “Yup,” agrees Pat.
The train arrives in Goshen on Sunday and Pete decides to stay a few days to collect material for a story. He meets the Riordans in the train station and they invite him to lunch where he meets an old friend of theirs Dr. Aaron. The Doctor is one of the original inhabitants of Goshen and he regales Pete with the short history of the town. It is here we first learn of the Majority, a collective of gambling hall and brothel-owners on the east side who rule the town with an iron hand. Both the mayor and marshal are in their pay, and their control of the teamsters allows them to regulate all commerce in and out of the city. Goshen suffers from high unemployment and inflation and the remaining honest businessmen are leaving town. Robert Riordan is visibly troubled by this news.
Near the end of lunch, Riordan mentions Pete’s altercation on the train. Dr. Aaron is curious to hear more, and when he is given the drunk’s description he cautions Pete that it sounds a little like Con Moyer. Con and Ace Moyer own the gambling hall ‘Bucket of Blood’; they are members of the Majority and thoroughly bad seeds. Pete thanks Dr. Aaron for his concern and parts with the Riordans. He walks across the tracks to a saloon that caters to Irish laborers and meets up with Pat Dunn for a goodbye drink. Pete joins his friend in shots of rye and gives Pat a warm hug goodbye, never expecting to see him again. Back outside and slightly drunk, he heads towards the gambling district and into the belly of the beast.
The gambling district on 19th Street is at full blast. Pete enters the ‘Headquarters Saloon’, which is packed with drinking men, gamblers and whores, and meets up with his journalist friend. Together they have a drink and watch the action. At the bar is Marshal Steve Long, who Pete knows to be on the take. Feeling his whiskey, he confronts the Marshal for an interview and asks him to respond to the allegations. Long seems to know about Pete and answers him with contempt before walking away. The two friends go back to drinking, having decided to stay out late and see the sights. A cleaning man suddenly appears at their side—Poke, a damaged Civil War veteran—and tells them in his hectic way about the beautiful Lallee who works across the street in the ‘Bucket of Blood’. Against his better judgment, Pete agrees to go over there where he finds Lallee to be as beautiful as advertised. In a quick descent, Lallee seduces him into a back room and drugs him. Pete stumbles into a side ally where he is overtaken and beaten to within an inch of his life by Con Moyer.
Two days later, Pete wakes up from his coma to find Dr. Aaron hovering over him. Robert Riordan appears and is pleased to find the patient awake and doing better. With their help, Pete tries to piece that night together and learns that no arrests have been made—Con Moyer has an airtight alibi—and is reluctantly told that Pat Dunn is dead. His friend, in an obvious set-up, was shot and killed by Marshal Long in the street outside the ‘Bucket of Blood’. Pete is overtaken by grief at the brutal knowledge that he is the cause of a good man’s death. He vows revenge, and in this dark mood Anna comes to visit him. She senses his purpose and appeals to his better nature, causing a brief argument before kissing him goodbye and leaving him in a better mood. The next morning, Robert Riordan arrives and tells Pete of his plans to run for Mayor of Goshen and asks him to stay and work for him. Reticent at first, Pete quickly sees this as a means to exact his revenge on Moyer and Long. He agrees to work for Riordan.
With Pete at his side, Robert Riordan begins his campaign for mayor. At a luncheon for business men, Riordan lays out his plans for the city, extolling the virtues of free enterprise, and also calls out the Majority as an evil force in the town. Here we begin to meet a number of characters who are fashioned after historical figures during the Reagan Era as the political struggle unfolds. There is a public debate between Riordan and the current mayor Luke Murrin that contains themes and paraphrases from the Reagan/Carter and Reagan/Mondale debates. Riordan wins the crowd during this pivotal debate and is elected mayor.
As mayor, Riordan has the tie-breaking vote in the City Council, and he uses this advantage to undo the damage of the previous administration. The city is deep in debt and about to default on their loans. In his first meeting (a raucous affair), Mayor Riordan pushes through tax cuts and other reforms to promote business growth. We find him to be a seasoned politician who knows how to govern; he has a self-deprecating sense of humor and uses home-spun wisdom and parables to make his point. In a tense meeting with Marshal Long, the Mayor and City Attorney put the Marshal on notice—either he does his duty by collecting past-due fines and fees from Majority businesses or he risks losing his job.
That evening, as Pete approaches his boarding house, he spies three figures lurking in the shadows across the street. He touches his gun handle but they make no move, so he goes up to his room. There he is shocked to find the ghost of Pat Dunn—who turns out to be his brother. Mike Dunn has come to town with friends to revenge the death his brother. Pete talks him out of his vendetta by convincing him to wait (like him) and use the recent change in government to accomplish his revenge. After Mike leaves, Pete finds a letter from Anna chronically her journey across the territory. It’s signed “Your Devoted Friend” and he wonders at its meaning.
There is little confidence that Marshal Long will carry out his duty and Mayor Riordan tells his political allies that he has already sent for a man to replace him. A week later, Pete leaves his desk in City Hall to go have lunch but stops outside when he notices a stranger riding up. Gil Donovan is straight out of a L’Amour novel: a tall, laconic, easy-going-until-riled character who is smooth in action and quick on the draw. Soon to be the new Marshal, Donovan served with Riordan in the Civil War and has a talent for peace-keeping. Pete and Donovan hit it off and Pete introduces him to Mike Dunn and his Irish mates figuring he will need new constables once Donovan cleans out the corrupt police force. Donovan puts them through a few tests and tells Pete, “They’ll do just fine.” Open warfare with the Majority approaches.
Marshal Donovan outfits and trains his new police force. Their first act will be to serve warrants on Majority businesses (gambling halls, saloons and brothels) for delinquent fines and fees. Refusal to pay will lead to closure. Donovan keeps the hard cases for himself and Pete begs to come along with him as a reporter for one of the town papers. The Marshal agrees and they embark upon an adventure that includes Donovan disarming two assailants in the ‘Bucket of Blood’ (with Pete firing a warning shot into the chandelier), and ends up with an unknown gunman taking a potshot at them as they walk the prisoners back to the jailhouse. We also meet Josef Beria, the leader of the Majority, a mysterious figure who appears to be eastern European and wields considerable underworld power.
Pete writes a newspaper article about his adventure with the Marshal that is picked up and carried across the country. The entertaining article makes Pete and the Marshal something of celebrities and gives the Riordan administration a lift in the public’s eyes. At a dinner party at the Riordans, Pete begins to paint a fuller picture of Robert Riordan: there is the deep and vibrant love affair between him and his wife, the perennial youthfulness of a man he figures to be in his seventies, and the keen view of human nature and its endless struggle between good and evil. He finds Riordan to be a man of contradictions—religious but not church-going, disciplined but not a workaholic—and wonders if he is really as clever as he seems or just plain lucky
Riordan’s luck appears to run out the next day when the Majority flexes its muscles by having the teamsters refuse to unload goods in the freight yard. Such a prolonged shutdown would cripple the city and close down businesses and Councilman Ed Fitzgerald, whose interests ride with the Majority, uses the shutdown as blackmail to get the Mayor to reverse his policies. The gambit fails when Riordan calls in the U.S. Army out of Fort Russell to take over the teamsters’ job. Riordan also convinces the leaders of the teamsters to leave the fixed wages of the Majority and negotiate their own contracts with local merchants.
1869 ends, February rolls around, and Pete takes the occasion to reflect on Riordan’s accomplishments. Prosperity is returning to Goshen. Businesses are opening, men are being hired, and construction is picking up. Though the “closet war” between the two sides continues, the Majority has been weakened and Riordan appears to have outplayed them at every turn. Whether Riordan is smarter then the rest, blessed by God, or just lucky, Pete’s can’t say for sure.
March arrives and with it heavy snow. Pete goes into the Mayor’s office to review his daily schedule, which includes a luncheon with railroad executives at the Carlton Hotel. He visits Marshal Donovan at the jailhouse and the Marshal informs Pete that Steve Long and the Majority are up to something but he’s not sure what. Pete returns and later accompanies Mayor Riordan over to the Carlton. After the luncheon, as they are leaving the hotel, shots ring out and Riordan is wounded. Dr. Aaron arrives and feverishly works to save Riordan’s life.
The assassin is Poke, the cleaning man from the ‘Headquarters Saloon’, who rants that now Lallee will marry him. Pete sees the hand of the Majority in this and he walks back to City Hall, praying to God to save the life of Robert Riordan. City Hall is in chaos and Ed Fitzgerald is claiming he has everything under control. Pete levels his accusation against the Majority but Fitzgerald does not believe it, and we also learn that Lallee has left the city. Pete vows to find her and leaves, running into a messenger boy with a note from Dr. Aaron telling him Riordan will live. He thanks God.
Pete does not go after Lallee and instead promises Riordan to stay and look after the city during his convalescence. A trial is held and Poke is convicted and sentenced to hang, but no conspiracy can be proven. The Mayor returns to work and life in Goshen goes back to normal. Anna returns to town on her campaign to win the woman’s vote and her relationship with Pete appears to deepen, but they have a passionate falling out and she ends up going back east. June rolls around and Riordan is easily re-elected Mayor. In his office, Riordan discusses his plans for his second term, which includes turning up the heat on the Majority.
Right after the Fourth of July, Pete and Marshal Donovan take off on an excursion in the countryside. Pete believes he has persuaded Donovan to teach him how to track and cast for sign, and outside town they quickly pick up wagon tracks. Soon he realizes this is not a lesson and becomes excited when Donovan admits they are tracking Steve Long. They come to a roadhouse where they discover that the previous owner has mysteriously disappeared. The Marshal catches a gambler cheating and smashes his dealing box, giving a warning to him and the new owner. The gambler tries to make amends by offering Donovan a prostitute for free and Lallee appears, a broken down, opium-addicted nickel whore. Pete and Donovan leave without letting on they know her and pick up the wagon tracks again that are headed towards Indian Territory.
Pete and the Marshal continue their tracking across the high desert plain. They come to a second roadhouse—this one under construction—and Donovan pretends to be a messenger sent by Beria looking for Steve Long. The two laborers buy his story and tell him that Long has taken a wagon full of rifles towards Spoon Butte. Pete and the Marshal ride hard to get ahead of the wagon unseen so they can spy on Long’s activities. After an hour, they slow their horses and come upon a band of Cheyenne warriors. The Marshal, who has pieced things together, coolly tells the Indians that he works for Long and that the hand-off of the rifles has been moved eight miles north of the butte. They believe him and ride off. Donovan’s plan to merely spy on Long is out—they’re in it now—and he and Pete intercept Long and his driver at the butte. A gunfight ensues and Long is killed. They set fire to the rifles and two days later return to town with a line of prisoners in tow.
A trial is held and we learn that Long murdered the roadhouse owner as part of his plan to control the feed line into the Black Hills and gold country. Once again, no tie back to the Majority can be proven. It turns out that Long was Ace and Con Moyer’s half brother and word is out that they have vowed revenge. During these events, Anna surprises Pete with her return to town. She is living with her Aunt and has a job in the Goshen Library. Their relationship blossoms and they soon admit they love one another despite their penchant for arguing.
Despite the return of law and order and prosperity to the town, many businesses on the east side still pay protection money to the Majority. Mayor Riordan and his allies map out a plan to shut it down, but the execution of that plan goes bad. A man is killed by one of the Marshal’s constables and the whole affair threatens to stain Riordan’s administration. They weather the storm and turn the tide back in their favor.
The climax of the story unfurls on a warm day in October. Pete notices a prairie fire (a common sight) west of town but is surprised to see black smoke rising from a large fire on the opposite side of town. He has a bad feeling he can’t articulate and tells Anna to close up the Library before running off to help fight the fire. Pete suddenly pieces it together—the fire is a ruse—and he and the Marshal, with Mike Dunn, run back to City Hall. They are ambushed by Ace Moyer and Marshal Donovan is shot in the back. As he lies dying, Donovan exhorts his grief-stricken friend to run to the library. Pete understands and arrives in time to stop Con Moyer from raping Anna. A fight ensues and Moyer is taken down. Pete and Anna walk back to find Gil Donovan’s dead body laid out on a table in a bakery.
Chapter 19, Epilogue and Post Script
Two city blocks are destroyed by the fire but renovation begins at once. Con Moyer is convicted and sentenced to hang while his brother Ace is on the run, a wanted man. Mike Dunn is named Goshen Chief of Police. Three days after his murder, Gil Donovan is laid to rest and townspeople crowd the church to pay their respects. Robert Riordan is the last to speak and he delivers a stirring eulogy for his friend in which he appeals to the next generation (while looking at Pete) to fill the shoes of the fallen hero.
The Majority’s power is crumbling and Riordan sees an opportunity to strike a lasting peace, telling Pete that “we should always seek to make friends with old enemies.” A conference is arranged with Josef Beria and over the next three days, which includes a debate illustrating the fundamental divide between these two men and the worlds they represent, a deal is hammered out that signals the end of the Majority.
On Christmas night, Pete and Anna are enjoying coffee at her Aunt’s dinner table. Pete contemplates his situation—he has accomplished what he set out to do—and he suggests to Anna that maybe it’s time to go back home to the east. She will have none of it and playfully tells Pete that she wants their children to grow up in Goshen surrounded by the vast prairie and the Rockies. Pete says yes to her round-about marriage proposal. He walks home happy, promising to visit Gil’s grave so he can tell him about the wedding, and he stops to ponder the crowded stars in the night sky. At that moment he realizes he’s not a lucky at all—but rather blessed by God.
The epilogue, written by Pete in 1911, wraps up his tale and the ensuing years. We learn of the violent death of Ace Moyer but also are given the bittersweet end of Robert Riordan’s story, who succumbs from dementia many years later on his ranch in Sacramento. The fate of other characters are revealed and Pete tells us that he and Anna marry and raise a family in Goshen. Robert Riordan is a real hero to Pete, a man who mentored and inspired him, and he reminds his reader that the best of men are the ones who leave something good and lasting behind them. In a brief post script written after the passing of her husband, Anna Hammond fills in some of the missing parts of her husband’s life. She is alone now, warmed by her memories, and will never leave the great, rugged plains that lie outside her back door.
About The Author
A graduate of UC Berkeley in 1976 and a Bay Area resident for over 50 years. A writer for 40 years. Fiction novels and screenplays. Published a historical fiction novel in 2008 entitled Beggar King, published by James A. Rock & Company, Publishers, Rockville, Maryland. Just completed another historical fiction novel (Western) entitled Railhead, and I'm looking for a publisher.
In 2008 my novel Beggar King was published by James A. Rock & Company, Publishers, Rockville, Maryland. It is an historical fiction novel set in 1214 BC in Ancient Greece. The story is a behind-the-scenes retelling of the epic tale of Odysseus and his return home after years of war and wandering.
Experience, Credits, and/or Awards
Published novel, Beggar King, 2008.
Copyright 2012 – 2013, Guy Franks
This post was written by Guy Franks