The intrinsically fascinating story of the struggle of competing factions in the western territories to achieve--or avoid- -statehood in the late 19th century: that's the background for Dempsey's (the paperback What Law There Was, etc.) earnest, high- collar tale about a group of pre-statehood activists led by James Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railroad. Young Zack Horton, heir to his late grandfather's Dakota and Western Railroad--about to be sold to James Hill--and lovely Leah Page, owner-manager of a Baltimore leather-goods company and an ardent suffragist, have been recruited by Hill to travel west and beat the drums for statehood: the tycoon would rather deal with individual states than with Washington's (Democratic) political appointees; there's also the bogey of a nationalized railroad system! After a lunch with labor leader Sam Gompers, Leah joins the men off and on on the western trek. She and Zack will meet Hill and President Cleveland; then Zack bags Teddy Roosevelt in Dakota territory (``There's no way this land can be set aside for a bunch of savages [Indians] to use as a playground!''); talks with a Grange leader and a Mormon power; and rescues a mate in a flood caused by a mining disaster in Idaho. Meanwhile, there's talk to, and about, various politicos, good and bad, homesteaders, labor and farming union boys, empire builders, and strong women suffragists. At the last, in D.C., comes the statehood vote for the northern tier of territories. The real people here (like the fictional) speak with lungfuls of ether (``There are great, great things about to happen and I intend to be a part of them!''), and everyone chuckles and grins a lot. But while a bit stiff in the telling, this carefully researched fiction--with lots of velvet luxury in private railroad cars, etc.--is gripping stuff on pre-statehood turmoil.