Flames rise from the old, worn down ranch house whilst the moon slowly climbs into the sky. She’s full tonight, and her silver light makes everything brighter. The flames are licking up the side of the wooden house; smoke pouring from the upstairs windows that have already exploded from the pressure. Distantly the horses can be heard neighing wildly, spooked beyond calming as the fire engulfs their barn too. A gunshot echoes behind the house and laughter pierces the air as the sound of galloping gets closer and closer to where she hid. On the old beaten pathway from the ranch archway up to the home, O’Driscolls are pounding their way up and down the track, searching the bushes.
It was midnight when the knock at the door came, along with jeering sounds from the men behind it. Riley Jameson awoke groggily and slipped out of bed to her window. One glance down said all that needed to be said. She knew these men meant trouble. At 18 she was the middle child of her father who had sadly passed away when she was just 13, but she still lived with her mother and two brothers. She could handle a gun well and was already pulling on her boots and grabbing her father’s old rifle from under her bed when her door burst open. It was Adrian, her older brother, frantically pulling her out of the bedroom.
In the hallway, she met her other brother, Adam, who had his arm around their mother. She was sick, frail in her illness and age, and as Adrian frantically ran from one room to the next grabbing items and throwing them into a satchel, Riley slowly came to the realisation of what was happening.
“Do as I say, and don’t make a sound.” He whispered to Adam, shoving him down the steps as he cocked his own shotgun. “They’re O’Driscolls. I met them in Strawberry a few days ago. Bad fellers, they think our father owes them a debt.”
Riley’s breath hitched, and she took the satchel that was thrust in her direction. “Adrian-“ She began, but he cut her off.
“No- No, this- This mess is something we can’t come back from. I heard stories and-“ Just as he was whispering his explanation, the door was banged again. It sounded as though they were trying to break in, and Riley could see light from what she thought were lanterns. Thankfully the door was locked by a huge sliding piece of wood that their father had built when he first built the ranch. It may give them some time.
“You have to go. Run to the barn, get a horse, and go.” Adrian said, sternly. He was only 21, yet everything about him reminded her of their father. She shook her head and went to speak again.
“No.” Her mother said before she could utter a word. “I’ll handle them. My loves, run. Get away from here.” She said, voice cracking as she placed a hand on Adrian’s cheek. “Save yourselves whilst you still can.”
Riley had no idea what was happening, but from the snippets of information, she was given she knew it was nothing good. Adam looked like he may be violently ill at any moment, his face as pale as snow and his hands shaking. He was only 16, still just a boy, and it was then that she resolved to get him out safely.
She hitched up her nightgown and properly secured the satchel before grabbing her younger brother’s arm and dragging him to the back of the house. She could distantly hear her brother and mother arguing about who was staying when the door flew open and men began piling into the house. She hid herself and her brother against the wall, flattening herself to hide in the shadows. She could hear voices, mirthless and cruel.
“So Mrs Jameson,” The voice said, “I think you know why we’re here.”
Riley nudged her way to the door, slowly pushing it open with her entire palm flat against the wood.
“I will be honest, I have no idea.” Her mother retorted, and she could tell that she was buying for time for her children to escape. Adrian may still have a chance, but she couldn’t see him. Slowly she backed out of the door, her hands in a vice-like grip on her brother’s arm.
“N’aw, see… I think you do. That husband o’ yours? He borrowed some money from one of my boys a few months back and now it’s time to collect.” That same voice said, almost matter-of-factly.
“My husband has been dead for the past five years, I fear you have the wrong house.” Her mother protested, voice still calm and collected despite the circumstances.
This seemed to anger the man because before she could blink there was a slapping sound and a gunshot, followed swiftly by a second gunshot and a thud. Her mother let out a sob, and something twisted in Riley’s chest, but she couldn’t dwell. Not right now.
“You b-bastards!” Her mother yelled, and that was quickly followed by a second gunshot. Her hand twitched on her gun, and she heard Adam give a pained, animalistic sound. The O’Driscolls must have heard him because the next thing she knew there were footsteps.
“Search the house, you know the drill. We know they got a pretty little daughter so find her and bring her t’me.” That same voice instructed. Boots hastily made their way to the back of the house and Riley dragged her brother towards the barn. They hid, but boots could be heard in the barn as well. “Adam.” She whispered, urgently.
The horses were in a state, neighing frantically as strange men taunted them and began leading them out. There was no escape on horseback; there was no escape at all. She had to think and come up with a plan.
“Split up, hide behind those rocks over there, try and get away when you can. Find me in Strawberry.” She urgently shoved him in the direction of the rocks, just south of the entrance of the homestead, and made her way quietly through the trees of the forest just at the back of her home. She’d decided she’d try and distract them, so the further away she was the better her brother’s chances of escape.
Once at the base of a tall oak, she found a stick and snapped it loudly across her knee before scarpering up the tree like a squirrel. She tore up her hands going up, but eventually, she sat firmly in the branches of the tree as a few of the men began racing towards the sound. It had worked, she only hoped Adam would use the opportunity to run. Distantly she heard the boom of an explosion, and the house was up in flames and O’Driscoll men laughed and cheered.
She stayed absolutely still, crouched in the trees as the horses galloping near her stopped and men began trudging through the undergrowth.
“…Definitely heard somethin’ over here…” A voice said, young and full of enthusiasm. They searched the bushes, even clicking their tongues and whistling shortly as if they were calling a dog. She stayed still; sweat pouring down her back from the sheer heat of the fire. Her heart hammered, and she wondered how they couldn’t hear it directly above them.
“Goddammit, she ain’t here!” The words drifted up to her, loud over the roaring of the fire.
“She can’t run too far, we’ll get her yet.” Came another voice, a man’s voice far gruffer than before. She looked down, watching those two men and committing their faces to memory. The sheriff would need an accurate description once she and her brother reached the town.
A distant shout from the ranch had her head twisting to see what the commotion was. The men below her bolted towards the house, and that’s when she heard the whooping and hollering. From where she was squatting on the branch she could see the O’Driscols had set fire to the barn as well, their horses now stolen. The sheep were either slaughtered or running, and her chickens were much the same. In the middle of the dirt path, she could see a group of those men, the men that had come in the middle of the night and set fire to her home. The men who claimed her father owed a debt, but didn’t seem to like the fact that their father had been dead for some time. One of them, a man with dirty blonde hair, was boasting about killing Adrian and her mother. Claimed they were easy, and that he didn’t even need the men around him for this job.
It was nearly a full ten seconds before she could see what they were circling, and the sight sent her blood cold.
They dragged her beaten brother out of the bushes from behind the house. They were yelling something at him, but she couldn’t hear a damn thing over the pounding of blood in her ears. The fire was too loud, and the house was collapsing in on itself. All of her life burning away in an instance. Her mother, her father’s things, her brother… Her fingers twitched on the gun but her father’s voice was in her mind, telling her it was suicide and not to watch. She was helpless, one hapless farm girl up against 20 O’Driscoll outlaws. She didn’t have a hope in hell of rescuing her dear brother.
Savagely they beat him like a rabbit in a snare until he lay still on the ground, trapped within the jaws of the O’Driscolls. And just when she thought they’d done enough she heard another shot ring out. A hand came up to her mouth to stifle her sob, and she closed her eyes tightly so she didn’t have to see the way her brother laid unmoving.
Ice flowed down her spine, though the heat from the fire had scorched her skin. She stayed where she was for as long as her thighs would let her, even after the gang had disappeared into the night. The fire had died down and dawn was edging over the mountains to greet the day.
Hours later, after the shock had subsided, Riley stiffly climbed down from the tree and stumbled to the wreckage of her childhood home. She passed by her brother and felt sick to her stomach seeing him battered and shot. He was her little brother and to them, nothing more than a plaything to chew up and spit out. Trudging to the front door, she could see two bodies lay in close proximity to each other, almost touching, and charred beyond all recognition. Her chest ached, and she dropped to her knees in front of the house, her family scattered around her like rag dolls. The satchel dropped to the ground, as did her gun, and along with the embers of her home her soul was extinguished.
She would see these men again, and when the time came she would be holding a gun to that disgusting man’s head. And she will pull the trigger gladly and send him on his way to the depths of hell he crawled from.