Ray R. Kepley’s "Tails Up!" is an epic, first-person Western that is unexpectedly rewarding for such a familiar genre. It is a complex and sweeping tale set in 1868 in the short grass prairie of western Kansas and eastern Colorado. It is an unflinching look back in time through the intimate prism of history, geography and human behavior.
After reading Harpers Weekly and other publications describing the wonders of the West, Jack "Caroliny" Reynolds leaves North Carolina seeking adventure. He gets a job with a wagon train in Kansas City, Missouri, and follows the Santa Fe Trail west. The freight wagons Jack will drive are owned by Tom Powers from Missouri. One of the most interesting things about the journey is how the vast landscape they travel through transforms from unnoticed backdrop into a fully developed character. To the very end of the story, the expansive prairie never relents. It compels every one of the other characters to adapt to it or it kills them.
Tom Powers elects to stop a few miles east of (Fort Dodge) Dodge City, Kansas, and settles in a sod house. Jack and a friend named Bid McClaine stay on to help Tom build a ranch. Of the many challenges that face Jack, Bid and the other hands at Tom Power's ranch, the one constant is the harsh and untamable nature of the environment. Life changes permanently for them when Bid buys a mule that he is compelled to name "Old Satank". With mobility comes new opportunity. Jack and Bid aren't very good at farming, barely competent at ranching, and it would seem that they only excel in adventuring and scheming ways to make money. That leads them to the hay meadows and into deadly confrontation with the Native Americans.
The final third of this story is spent with Jack and Bid enlisting into the U.S. Army as civilian scouts. Along with fifty other men, Jack and Bid soon find themselves in one of the most important battles that ever took place on the prairie - The Battle of Beecher Island on the Arikaree River in what is now Colorado. Since the story is told in the first person, many of the key details of the battle and the important players in it aren't revealed. On the other hand, the painstakingly researched details and first-person account makes this battle gripping, even terrifying at times.
There were a couple of things that I really liked about this story. The geographical detail and simple truth in the characters were very appealing. The language the author uses in narrative to describe the area where I grew up is spot on ... on the high flats of eastern Colorado, in sight of the lonesome Two Buttes ... somewhere in the unknown past it has all but lost its way in the jumble of shifting sand hills ... (page 304), and later ... the better known and more impressive Two Buttes in Colorado ... (page 449). Having traveled extensively in Kansas, his descriptions of and references to the land there are equally well done.
The language the author used in the dialogue is sometimes difficult to read because it is spelled phonetically - as the author believed the characters to have actually spoken. It makes their creative combinations of curse words all the more potent as period-appropriate punctuation.
The three pieces of the story could stand on their own as separate novellas. Together, the story is very good, although long at 466 pages. The ending was abrupt. It left me wanting to know how the characters grand plans for a cattle ranching operation of their own grazing Texas range cattle on western Kansas short grass prairie would have turned out. That's a testament to the strength of the characterization and energy in its plot.
Unfortunately, we'll never get to read that last component of the story. The author, Ray R. Kepley, died Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007, in his hometown of Ulysses, Kansas, at the age of 99. He wrote the book “Tails Up!" when he was 70.
Definitely worth a read!
Publisher: Elliott Printers (1980)