Thin Shafts of Light


This story originally appeared on our now defunct 

Western fiction webzine The Big Adios.

Earlier that day around noon his Pa and Seth had been working on a harness. His mother had been outside too, scrubbing some clothes in the wash tub outside. Tyler had been assigned to sweep the floor of the cabin.

“Ma, we got some visitors comin’ to call on us” Seth said loud enough for Tyler to hear him from inside the cabin. “Up on the hill, see ‘em?” He said it with a little excitement in his voice.

Tyler had kept sweeping but he moved to the small window that looked out the front of the cabin, due west. He peeked out and followed to where Seth pointed up on the hill. There were three men on horseback and they had stopped, silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky.

He glanced over at both his folks as they stared at the three horsemen. A small smile, which had started up on his mother’s face, quickly faded.

His father’s arm slowly dropped after his wave went unanswered by the three riders on top of the hill. His Pa’s usual stern expression got even more serious as Tyler watched him closely. There was a tense minute or so when the riders and his family continued to study each other.

Finally, Seth broke the silence, “Pa, what do you think they…“, but he didn’t finish when he saw one rider casually begin to make his way down the hill to them. The other two riders fell in leisurely right behind him.

“Seth, get inside with your little brother. Ma, you too.” His father had told them that without taking his eyes off the three riders.

“But Pa.”

“Git boy…go on Seth…now” Tyler’s father said it low and serious, while he continued to tighten a strap on the plow harness.

His mother dropped the shirt she’d been washing back into the metal tub and walked steadily over to Seth, taking a handful of the boy’s shirt when she reached him.

“Seth, inside with your brother… goan now” she whispered, tugging hard on his shirt. She walked with Seth a few steps up onto the short porch, ushered him inside, then stopped at the cabin door.

The riders kept coming at a slow pace down the hill towards them. They were close enough now for Tyler to see how bedraggled and scruffy looking they were.

“Jared…” His mother’s voice was hesitant.

“Git inside Mary, take care of the boys. I’ll see what these boys need.” He said it quietly as he continued to stare at the approaching horsemen. “Inside now, hurry.”

She did as he said and came into the cabin quickly. Tyler and Seth were over looking out the small dirty window and she went to an old standup cupboard in the corner. She grabbed something covered in burlap, turned and walked to their small table.

His mother had pa’s big pistol and the bone handled, big blade hunting knife. She looked at Tyler and tried to give him a reassuring smile, but couldn’t deliver one, her gaze going back to the shut door and out beyond it to the approaching riders.

Ty looked back out the window at that lead rider, who looked to be younger than his Pa, but not by much. He had on what looked to be a brand new U.S. cavalry hat but was wearing an old greasy buckskin shirt and pants.

He was within about thirty feet of his father when he reached across his waist and pulled a revolver, all in one swift motion. Bringing it over and up quickly, he aimed and fired, without warning or a word spoken.

The rider’s horse reared up and the man briefly struggled to bring him steady or he would have taken another shot. His pa, reacting to the sudden movement, began to duck and run for the cabin before the shot had even rang out. The bullet grazed his left shoulder spraying a mist of blood up in the air.

The other two riders behind also fired and his pa was hit again, this time in the right arm between his elbow and wrist.

Seth slammed the shutters closed on the window and barred it. Tyler stood frozen and couldn’t seem to move.

His father threw the door open and stumbled and almost fell rushing through the door. His mother slammed the door shut again, swinging a heavy wood slat down to bar it. Grabbing the big Colt pistol from his dad’s army days, she gave Seth the hunting knife.

His father snatched his Winchester rifle hanging on the wall and chambered a bullet, backing up from the door until the far wall stopped him.

“Mary, take the boys down in the hole”, his father said through clenched teeth. He was bleeding bad from the arm wound and it hung weakly at his side. He held the Winchester one handed with his left arm and stared at the closed door.

She quickly scooted the table and floor rug out of the way, opening the little hatch that was cut into the floor. She grabbed Tyler and pushed him halfway down through the hole, motioning for Seth to come as well.

But the door to the cabin buckled inward with a loud bang and the shuttered window where Seth stood was splintered, cracking in from the outside. Ty saw his brother back up and stick the big knife out in front of him. He was scared but he was ready.

“Rancher!” the voice roared from outside. “We mean to have whatever we want in there and by God, we will. You better git on out here quick like. Now, you do that like I said and we’ll think about sparin’ you and yourn.” That was followed with some murmured talk between the three riders that Tyler couldn’t quite hear.

“Get off my property now and I’ll think about not killin’ all three of you sons a bitches!” Tyler’s father yelled back at them. Then he fired a round from the Winchester about waist high through the weathered cabin door. There was quick howl and blood-curdling scream from outside.

“Gawwwd DAMMIT Reed! He caught me one a good one in the leg. Damn it Reed, hurts bad Reeeed!” the screaming man wailed out his pain.

His pa worked the lever action swiftly despite his lame arm and leveled the Winchester again while painfully leaning back against the wall.

Mary looked over and saw that Tyler was still only halfway down into the hole, watching the whole thing unfold.

Rushing over she gave him a gentle shove down. She motioned at Seth again, but he had backed his way over to the far corner and shook his head violently. It was clear he meant to stay up here with them and help. She turned her attention back to Tyler.

She somehow managed a grin this time “You stay down there now my sweet Ty, you stay down there quiet as a mouse and don’t you be coming up till we tell ya to okay?”

He stared at her with big solemn eyes.

She smiled again at him and held a finger to her lips.

“Goan now Ty. Do that for mama.”

And he did. She gently pushed his head down further, dropping the little door at the same time.

Tyler couldn’t see it, but above him she had drawn the heavy rug back over the hatch quickly and had begun to scoot the table back in to place when the front door was shattered inward, all the way this time. Across the room, the window shutter was splintered open too. Seth started to come down with the big knife on a hand that suddenly shoved through the small window with a pistol.

A split second before the knife found flesh, the pistol fired and Jared was hit again. More shots followed. Jared Parker’s Winchester cracked once more at a man charging through the splintered front door. The man was firing too. The third rider was right behind him.

From below Tyler heard the Colt Peacemaker his mother had been holding with two hands. It boomed twice and then stopped. Then his mother let out the first of her angry and long screams.

~ fin ~