“I liked Coolie. He made me laugh,” Seth Dugan said. He broke open a box of ten-gauge cartridges on the desk top.
“I known you all my life, brother. Never seen you laugh once,” Len said as he scooped up stubby shells and stuffed them in his pockets.
“Made me smile then,” Seth said, glowering.
Len shrugged and let the matter go.
Joe Wiley stood in the open doorway of the jail house and watched the pair check the loads on their shotguns.
“You boys know what we’re about to do,” he said.
“We’re putting down some mad dogs, is all,” Len said. The brothers joined him out on the boardwalk.
“Me and anyone else wearing a badge is going to become plain unpopular in Mercury Wells after tonight,” Joe said.
“I got all the friends I need,” Seth said. He set out down the street toward the Paradise. The other two followed, taking long strides to keep up.
* * *
The brothers entered the tent behind a fiery storm of double-ought. Len let both barrels fly toward the bar. One of the keeps was on hands and knees mopping up blood. He was chopped down in a blizzard of shot and flying splinters. Wild shot crashing from the smooth bore barrels turned bottles above the bar into a lethal sleet of glass.
Seth followed behind; his own scattergun raised while his brother crouched to reload. Bear emerged from the gloom, an ax handle held back for a swing. A charge of buck removed his head at the neck in an explosion of flesh and bone. The big bruin of a man flopped to the floor, legs dancing. Seth swung the shotgun across the room. Cowboys, startled to sudden sobriety, rolled and tumbled to cover in all directions. Seth discharged his remaining barrel from the hip to keep them on the prod. Cowboys belly-crawled under the walls of the tent to escape the carnage. The canvas flapped like a ship’s sail in a stiff blow with the force of their hasty exit.
The Dugans stood in the gun smoke stink with shotguns covering all the remaining company. Two surviving bartenders stood with shaking hands open before them. T.J. Bratt came around from the back of his gaming table with hands before him and fingers spread. He glanced down at the headless heap of his loyal bodyguard. A shadow of regret moved across his face. He came to a stop by the body of Coolie Taylor still lying dead where he fell in the filthy sawdust.
“Am I to suppose that I am under arrest?” Bratt said with a trace of a smile curling his lip.
Marshal Joe Wiley came through the tent flies, Colt drawn. He parted the Dugan brothers to level the big revolver inches from Bratt’s nose.
“That my weapon?” Joe said, eyes cutting to Bratt’s vest front. His .32 was tucked in the man’s waistband.
Bratt nodded, gaze lowered. “You’re free to retrieve it, marshal.”
“I’d prefer you hand it to me.”
Bratt’s eyes leapt up to regard Joe Wiley’s level stare. His mouth fell slack. A fresh film of sweat sprang to Bratt’s face.
“That’s not to my liking. I am surrendering myself to your custody, marshal. Let the wheels of justice grind fine and slow.” His grin returned; his eyes narrowed.
“Not for you,” Joe said. The big Colt barked. A fat slug cleaved T.J. Bratt’s skull in two. A spray of bone and brain showered behind the man. He stumbled back one step, then two, before folding to the floor in a lifeless sprawl.
“Out,” Joe growled to the surviving bartenders. They scrambled through the tent opening, skirting the Dugans on their way to the street. He stooped to yank his .32 from Bratt’s belt.
“Let’s get our friend out of this shithole,” Joe said. Seth handed his shotgun off to his brother and crouched to take the body of their friend under the arms. He rose with Coolie slung over his shoulder.
Behind the bar Joe found a can of lamp oil. He poured it over the floor, splashing it into the spreading pool of liquor from bottles shattered by the Dugans’ opening salvos.
“Better step outside, boys,” Joe said, taking a glass lamp down from a hook.
Out on the street a new crowd was gathering. They watched Seth Dugan emerge carrying the still form of Coolie Taylor. Len Dugan stepped from the walk with a shotgun in each fist. Marshal Wiley was the last out. He tossed the lit glass lamp back into the tent. A ball of orange flame tinged in black rushed from within. Inside of seconds the sprawling tent was consumed, canvas flapping to send sparks flying. The crowd receded from a sudden wall of furnace heat. A tower of black smoke rose to smear the stars away.
Joe stepped between the Dugans, a Colt to each hand.
“This was a reckoning! A reckoning!” He spoke loud to be heard over the whoosh and gutter of the inferno behind him. The crowd shifted as more joined the throng, coming from the tents and saloons.
The mayor came through the mob followed by some of the other town founders. His honor wore no collar, and his vest was unbuttoned. Such was his hurry to reach the conflagration. His face was red with fury even in the crimson light of the burning Paradise.
“Mister Wiley!” he thundered. Joe noted that the mayor did not refer to him by his title.
“Not tonight, mayor! I won’t hear from you tonight! This ain’t politics. This is between my men and anyone who would break the law.”
The mayor stepped back, swallowing hard, his own rage forgotten in the face of the marshal’s wrath.
“Anyone else who breaks the law in Mercury Wells can expect the same from me and my deputies!” Joe went on, his voice a guttural roar. “I will not tolerate a town where a lawman’s life is considered forfeit. Force will be met with force. That’s my word. That’s my law.”
He turned his back on the faces gleaming in the glow of the rising flames. A figure in white stood apart from the others. Adeline’s eyes gleamed wet with tears. He took a step toward her but she turned to shimmer away into a pall of smoke swirling over the street.