In William Faulkner's "Barn Burning," the boy Snopes does not actually witness what happens to his father and brother, nor what happens to the Major's barn. But what do you assume happens?
As your question implies, because Faulkner uses ambiguity very skillfully to cloud the reader's view of Snopes's actions at Major de Spain's barn and, perhaps more importantly, what the shots signify, the reader is left to construct the final scene. There are, however, elements within the story that allow the reader to make educated assumptions about the violent ending.
The story begins with Snopes on trial for being suspected of burning Mr. Harris's barn after a dispute for which Snopes is clearly at fault. And although Mr. Harris has no concrete evidence of Snopes's guilt, he does know that a messenger hired by Snopes came to deliver a message to Harris:
He say to tell you wood and hay kin burn.
This testimony, unfortunately, was not admissible because the messenger could not be produced to give direct evidence. For the reader, though, the possibility of Snopes's guilt becomes quite clear.
Snopes's dispute with Major de Spain is, like the first dispute, entirely Snopes's fault, and the outcome—having to give Major de Spain ten bushels of corn for having wrecked de Spain's rug—sets up another confrontation in which Snopes's vengefulness takes a familiar form. In an example of foreshadowing (one of Faulkner's favorite literary techniques—see "A Rose for Emily"), Faulkner presents us with an irate Sarty who, after the verdict, tries to comfort his father with "He [Major de Spain] won't git no ten bushels neither. He won't git one." Mr. Snopes answers this with a very ominous statement: "You think so. Well, we'll wait until October anyway." This is a subtle hint, but given the probable barn burning at the story's beginning, a close reading will allow the reader to conclude that Snopes is planning some form of retribution.
Snopes's plan to burn de Spain's barn begins with his collection of all the available oil around the cabin, and the fact that he is preparing to carry this plan to fruition is obvious in his wife's comments, "Abner! No! No! Oh, God. Abner!" A second sign of his intent is his order to his wife to hold Sarty—because Snopes believes Sarty will give de Spain some warning, which Sarty accomplishes when he breaks free of his mother's grip. These elements—the collection of the oil, the distress of Mrs. Snopes, and the order to restrain Sarty—are clearly meant to lead the reader to conclude that another barn burning is in progress.
That Snopes succeeded in burning the barn is evident in the final scene when Sarty is escaping from his family. As he recovers from almost being run down by a rider and horse (likely de Spain), Sarty describes the scene:
For an instant in furious silhouette against the stars . . . strained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars. . . .
In the context of what has just happened, the "soundless" roar that blots out the stars can only be the fire of de Spain's barn as it is consumed by Snopes's revenge.
The three shots Sarty hears can be understood to be the result of de Spain's arrival at the barn. Of the three shots, the first was most likely from Snopes, which missed, and the second two were from de Spain; considering his obvious military background, it is likely that he dispatched Snopes and Sarty's older brother, Ab.
Faulkner's use of ambiguity certainly creates insecurity in the reader, but a close reading allows the reader to make very strong assumptions about the end. However, the reader is always left with a slight uneasiness; assumptions, even good ones, are not the same as certainty.
At the conclusion of his short story “Barn Burning,” William Faulkner strongly implies that Abner Snopes burns yet another barn, although whether he does or not is never made absolutely clear. In any case, his young son, Sarty, has run to warn the owner of the barn, Major De Spain, about his father’s intentions:
"De Spain!" he cried, panted [to De Spain’s black servant]. "Where's…" then he saw the white man too emerging from a white door down the hall. "Barn!" he cried. "Barn!"
"What?" the white man said. "Barn?"
"Yes!" the boy cried. "Barn!"
Later, after De Spain gallops off in the direction of the barn, Sarty hears gun shots in the distance, but again Faulkner leaves unclear who fired the shots and whether anyone was injured or killed. Faulkner does, however, make it possible for us to make a few assumptions, including the following:
- Surely Abner Snopes intended to burn yet another barn; he has a history of such behavior, and nothing in the story suggests that he would fail to act on his clear intentions
- His youngest son as well as his wife seem to assume that Ab will indeed burn another barn
- Whether Ab and his older son had succeeded in setting the barn on fire before the arrival of the owner is not clear
- The gunfire probably comes from De Spain; it would be only natural for him to approach potential (or actual) barn-burners armed, whereas nothing suggests that Ab and his older son are carrying guns.
- By leaving some crucial details ambiguous, Faulkner adds to the over-all ambiguity of the story. He tantalizes his readers, makes them think for themselves, and thus makes them active readers of the story rather than merely passive recipients of information
- Whatever happened about the barn and with the major, Sarty realizes that he can never return to his father:
He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing - the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.