Sunday, June 17, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Red Owl

Here's an old, old, old-fashioned one from a page full of short story concepts I was playing with back when I was still selling them to magazines. I think I'd been reading Ambrose Bierce as well as Texas history and miscellaneous works on Plains Indians.

Will Margraf comes home, invalided out of the Confederate Army, to find his family about ready to abandon their homestead (between and west of San Antonio and Austin) for fear of Comanches. A young war leader named Red Owl has led three successful raids in the area since the war began. Will swears he didn't beat Yankees to run from red devils, and vows to take the offensive during the next raid. He manages to keep his word, impressing everyone with his reckless courage by killing and scalping Red Owl himself as he is in the process of running off the Margraf cattle. His mother feels that the scalping is overdoing it, but he displays the trophy proudly at all opportunities, and has great prestige with his neighbors.

A screech owl that in a hollow live oak near the site of the killing begins to behave oddly. Will laughs at the notion that the owl's oddities (spooking his horse, spitting pellets at him, occasionally appearing in the daytime) have any significance. However, when it starts killing poultry, he decides to get rid of it. No one is more surprised than Will when it attacks him, pecking out his eyes (?) and tearing off his scalp.

See, very old-fashioned, plus there's a theme missing. Red Owl and Will would be a lot alike - brash, young, aggressive, and accustomed to solving problems with violence. They'd share a sense of entitlement and a lack of patience with anyone else's viewpoint, and both come from societies which wouldn't view any of these traits as flaws in these particular people. No ending that didn't bring out this similarity would satisfy me these days.

Since my own feeling toward such people is that most of them are fronting most of the time, I'd probably have Will claiming to have been invalided, when really he's just wandered home like so many Texas Confederates, particularly with families on the frontier, did. He may never have seen combat at all. Which would explain a lot about his behavior.

Successful countering of a Comanche raid was extremely rare, for good reason. They were experts of the lightning strike from the dark and had a good idea of how many men they needed to carry out a successful raid. They were also hard as heck to follow, which was what most rangers, home guard units, and informal posses who tried to deal with them were reduced to doing. So I'd have to stage Will's triumph carefully. It might be down to blind luck as much as courage.

I'd also want the screech owl to act both like a screech owl and like the vengeful spirit of a Comanche war leader, which would involve some research into screech owl behavior.

The pellet spitting is just petty and ridiculous. Which doesn't mean I couldn't use it, just that it introduces a layer of the absurd into an old-fashioned ghost story. Which could be fruitful.

Anyway, I've mostly given up trying to write short stories these days. They have to be really beating down the doors of my brain for me to even try, the markets are so limited.

(And nope, still can't edit, or even get a list of published posts. Blogspot upgraded recently, so no doubt that's the problem.)


  1. Actually, I think the pellet-spitting is the key: it proves that the revenant of Red Owl is no wiser or nobler than he was in life.

    Maybe returning as an owl cost Red Owl a lot -- going back rather than moving on is often a mistake.

    And maybe, once Red Owl has had his revenge, Will wants his, and so on. Maybe his last name should be Moggs, and the redheaded soldier returns as a bad-tempered marmalade tabby.

    Maybe the story should be retold in the modern day, when the eleventh owl confronts the fourteenth cat, as a descendant of one (or both) of the combatants tries to persuade them to knock it off already.