Will Coogan was sweeping the porch of the small ranch when two men on horseback approached. Coogan squinted in the New Mexico sun as both men dismounted and walked over. The men wore six-shooters on their belts and walked with arrogance.
"Help you fellers?" asked Coogan.
"More like we can help you."
"We'd like to make you an offer on your ranch."
"Not for sale."
"That might not be the smartest move, hombre. These are dangerous days. And you're not getting any younger."
"I'll take my chances. Now, get off my land."
Coogan stepped forward, adjusting his grip on the broom handle. The two men glanced at each other, one of them shook his head.
"Let us know when you're ready to sell."
Coogan watched as the men mounted their horses and rode back in the direction of Santa Rosa. He sighed. Back in his younger days the two men would have been shot where they stood. Now in his fifties he did not want any more lead throwing. He just wanted to be left alone. He went back into the house, kicking the door shut behind him.
The following afternoon a rider approached Coogan's ranch. Coogan went outside to meet the rider. He recognised the man as the owner of a nearby ranch. He tied his horse and stepped onto the porch.
"Afternoon, Pat. Want some coffee?"
Pat Richards was around twenty years old. He and his wife ran a nearby ranch. He had fair hair and blue eyes. There was still something of the boy about him. That afternoon he had a worried look on his face.
As Will poured coffee in his small kitchen his neighbour spoke.
"Men came to the ranch yesterday. Said they wanted to buy us out. Said it real mean, like we had no choice in the matter. I told them no and they got nasty. They said this ain't the last of it. We're barely breaking even as it is. If there's gonna be trouble I just don't see how we'll be able to stay on."
"I've had the same visitors. We'll just have to see what happens."
"What can we do? We're just farmers, aren't we?"
Will took a gulp of coffee before speaking.
"Should we go see the sheriff in Santa Rosa? Tell him everything."
"Shoot, Will, law won't do nothing. Besides, what we gonna tell the sheriff? Dudes came wanting to buy us out? And when the trouble comes you know we won't be able to prove anything."
* * *
The next morning Coogan rode into town to pick up supplies. Santa Rosa was made up of one main street. Clusters of buildings huddled together as though to protect themselves from the wilderness all around. As he rode down the main street Coogan saw something was different this morning. The normal busy raised walkways were quieter. The white adobe buildings still reflected the morning sun but store owners were not trying to sell their wares. Not today. This morning they were repairing damaged doors and windows, sweeping the wooden walks of broken glass. Coogan swore. Santa Rosa had never been the prettiest or quietest of towns but trouble of this scale was unheard of.
He tied up his horse and went over to the General Store. The owner, a man of a similar age to Coogan, was clearing the broken glass from out front of his store. He turned to Coogan as he neared, anger and sadness burned in his eyes.
"Look at this."
"Last night as I was closing up two dudes came in. They said they wanted to buy my store. Of course I said no. They went berserk. Trashed my place. I hear this morning they've done the same to every business in town."
"Same punks came to my ranch too."
"I don't think we've seen the last of them. I can't afford to lose any trade because of this trouble. And most of the other folks in town are the same."
"Tell you what, I'll help you clean up here and then you can get me my groceries."
The store owner nodded.
* * *
As Coogan rode back to the ranch and despite the cloudless sky overhead he felt a storm brewing. He pushed his horse on. The saddle bags were laden with supplies including a bottle of whiskey. He agreed with the others that the dudes attacking the town were not done yet. And someone had to be behind it. It would be suicide for two punks to be doing this on their own. Coogan had left his wild days behind him. He had hoped to see out his days in peace. That was what he found particularly troubling about the attacks.
* * *
Two nights later Coogan heard the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of town. He swore. Poured himself a measure of whiskey. He gulped down the fiery liquor. He felt the burn run down his throat. He grabbed his hat. Placing it on his head he made his way out the door.
* * *
The dark street was alive with gunfire. A dozen men were charging up and down on horseback, yelling and hollering, firing their pistols in the air. Coogan rode towards them. His hand automatically went to his hip. It was an old instinct. He no longer carried a gun. He wove through the chaos in the dusty street. He tied his horse and went into the saloon.
In the lamp glow he noticed the usual array of drinkers and card players. Every man looked worried by the scenes going on outside. Some knocked back liquor with red eyes, others chewed fingernails and glanced out the window. Coogan went to the bar. He ordered a whiskey. As the barman slid over his drink Coogan spoke. He nodded to the street outside.
"What's with the evening entertainment?"
"It's them hoople-heads that want to buy us all out. Except looks like the brought a few of their amigos with them."
Coogan went to find a table. He chose a seat facing the room. He took a sip of liquor and waited.
* * *
An hour later the crowd tearing up the street had had enough. The dozen men stormed into the saloon. Each man wore a gun on his hip and swaggered like they owned the place. As they crossed the room they kicked over tables and chairs, they downed people's drinks, daring someone to challenge them. Coogan recognised the two men who had visited his ranch.
The men approached the bar. They ordered whiskey and drank without paying. Even across the room Coogan saw resignation on the barman's face. One of the men who had come to his ranch turned and spoke to the room.
"Any of you folks ready to sell yet?"
"Nope? You'll come round. Let's see how long y'all can hold out."
The man spun and fired his pistol. A bottle of whiskey on the bar shattered. Coogan got to his feet. The whole room watched as he walked slowly, deliberately towards the gunslinger.
"Time you boys were leaving," said Coogan.
"Just who are you to tell us to leave?"
The man waved his pistol menacingly.
"Well, ain't you just the tough guy. Waving that gun at an unarmed man. If you was to put that pistol away, maybe we'd see you ain't so tough."
The guy placed his pistol on the bar. He shrugged.
"Now, I'm unarmed too, old-timer. What are you—"
Coogan slammed a fist into the guy's face. He crashed to the floor. Blood poured from his nose, a look of shock on his face. He jumped to his feet. Shock turned to anger. Coogan snatched the guy's pistol from the bar. Pointed it at him. He drew back the hammer. The other men drew their weapons.
"I said it was time you were leaving."
"You kill me and my boys will shoot you where you stand."
"Sounds like we got ourselves a deal. I'm game if you are. What do you say?"
The guy's shoulders slumped. He shook his head.
"What about my pistol."
Coogan smiled. He tipped the gun up, emptied all the bullets. He tossed the gun to the man.
"We'll be back," he snarled.
"I'll be waiting," said Coogan.
The men rushed out of the saloon doors. Horses' hooves thundered down the street as they left town. Coogan noticed the sheriff cowering in one corner. The barrel chested man had fear in his eyes. Coogan just shook his head.
* * *
The following morning Pat Richards rode to see Will Coogan. He looked to the older man with excited eyes.
"Heard about what happened in the saloon last night. They way you stood up to a dozen armed men.'
"That's not quite how it happened."
"They say you handled yourself like a real gun fighter. That what you was, Will? A mean son of a bitch gunslinger?"
"My killing days were a long time ago. I've seen wicked things and done much worse. But that was then."
"You ain't that person no more?"
"Make no mistake, son. I'm still him."
"If that's so what are you doing working on a ranch?"
"Never figured on living this long."
* * *
When Coogan crossed the saloon that evening people shook his hand and patted him on the back. He just shrugged. He refused offers to buy him a drink by saying he wouldn't take a drink from a man like he was a lady being courted.
* * *
Around noon the next day Coogan heard horses coming up the dirt track to his ranch. He took a deep breath. He opened the door. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. He waited a second for the dust to settle then went out onto the porch. Ten men on horseback glared at him. At the head of the group was the man he'd punched in the saloon. Next to him was a man in his forties. He had flecks of silver in his beard. He had the air of a man who was used to getting what he wanted.
"My name's Michael Turner. I understand you had a little altercation with one of my men, Jim Cody, here."
Coogan didn't speak.
"The fact remains, Mr Coogan, that I would like to buy your property. I am interested in this entire area."
"Like I told Mister Cody, here, this place ain't for sale. Now, if you'll excuse me."
"I am not a man who takes no for an answer. I'm sure you will reconsider with the necessary persuasion."
"That sounds like a threat."
"Does it? Does it really?" smiled Turner.
* * *
Two days later. Coogan rode into town. The sun beat down from the cloudless sky. It was so hot that it hurt to breathe. Each breath seemed to draw in as much dust as hot air. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. As he rode slowly down the main street he noticed a tense atmosphere. People were huddled in groups talking very seriously. Coogan knew the reason for the nerves. Michael Turner had been making his so-called offers all around town.
The owner of the General Store confirmed his suspicions. This Michael Turner had approached practically the whole of Santa Rosa making his thinly veiled threats. So far nobody had agreed to sell up but Coogan knew it was only a matter of time.
* * *
Just after midnight Coogan was woke by the sound of riders approaching. He peered out the window. In the pale moonlight he could see Jim Cody, Michael Turner and around ten other men. Each of them had their pistols drawn. They rushed their horses right up to the house. They fired shots at the house. It sounded like an awful thunder storm as bullets tore into the walls and windows. Coogan swore. He crouched and leaned against the adobe wall.
The volley of gunfire continued for what felt like hours but could only have been around ten minutes. In the silence that followed Michael Turner called out.
"What about now, Coogan? Ready to sell? Me and my boys are just getting started."
Turner gave the order and they headed back down the dusty track.
Coogan, still slumped on the floor, knew that he had no option but to go back to the wild days he had put behind him.
* * *
Coogan joined the other townsfolk in the saloon the next evening. They discussed exactly what could and should be done. Some were saying they'd had enough and wanted to sell to Turner. Others, his neighbour Pat Richards included, said they should tough it out. Just as the impromptu meeting was drawing to a close the saloon doors burst open. Something had been flung into the room. It crashed to a heap on the floor. Except it wasn't a thing. It was the bloody, beat up, dead body of the sheriff. Panic broke out across the room. People screamed, yelled and trembled. The barman tossed a cloth over the body. He told someone to take the body across to the undertakers and call the Padre.
"It's clear that Turner is warning us." said Pat. "This is a message."
"I reckon," said Coogan, "it's about time we sent a message of our own."
* * *
Coogan spent the next morning patching up his ranch house as best he could. The repair job wasn't great but it would have to do. Besides, he had more pressing matters to tend to. He had a glass of whiskey. He sighed. Then a determination took hold of him. He gritted his teeth.
He went through to the bedroom. He reached under the bed. He pulled out a carved wooden chest. He took the chest through to the kitchen table. He sat for a long moment, his hands resting on the lid of the box. Then he opened it.
He took out the bundle. Peeled back the cloth. He picked the object up. The six-shooter felt good in his hands. The weight of the gun and that it spelt death to anyone on the wrong side of it was a pleasantly familiar sensation. He checked and oiled the gun.
He got to his feet. He strapped the holster around his waist. He drew the pistol, aimed at a spot on the wall. He did a few more practise draws. Yes, it was all coming back to him. Will Coogan, the cold-blooded killer was back.
* * *
Coogan called on Pat Richards. The young man gasped when he saw the pistol on his hip. He told Richards to follow him into town. Richards nodded. Coogan turned his horse and road for Santa Rosa.
He tied his horse outside the saloon. He marched into the bar room. People stared when they was the pistol and the glint in his eye.
"Tell everyone who wants to keep their business to get their behinds in here now," Coogan yelled.
He sipped a whiskey at the bar and waited.
Thirty minutes later a crowd had gathered. Word had gone round and people flocked to hear what he had to say. Coogan downed the whiskey and turned to the people.
"You've all been visited by Turner. You've had trouble from his boys. Last night my place was shot up. Then the sheriff was killed."
A roar of anger went up.
"The only way to stop these sons of bitches is to put them in the ground."
"I don't want any part of the fighting. Violence is not the answer," one man said.
"Well," Coogan said, "When you figure out just what is the answer you can let them that are left know what you've come up with."
"I can't hold off any longer," said another.
"The way I see it," said Pat, "we haven't got a great deal of choice. Either we sell to Turner or we make a stand."
"Full of sand, aren't you, boy?" someone said.
"But Pat's young. He's got his future at stake."
The group discussed and debated for over an hour. Coogan slouched in a chair by the window watching the street.
"Will?" Pat called.
Coogan went over. Again all eyes watched him.
"If we did as you said, if we stand up against Turner and his men, I mean, how? We're farmers and store owners. We ain't gunslingers."
"But you could be," said Coogan.
"Give me two days in the desert. And if you want this town badly enough you'll fight for it."
The room fell silent.
Coogan saw determination shining amidst the fear in people's eyes.
* * *
As afternoon turned to evening Coogan got to his feet. He put his hat on and headed for the doors. The townsfolk watched him. Their eyes asked where he was going. He called over his shoulder.
"We'll be needing guns."
* * *
A while later Coogan entered the sprawling, bustling town of El Paso. The barman had mentioned that he'd overheard some of Turner's men say they were going to be drinking and whoring in El Paso that evening. Perfect, Coogan thought.
El Paso was a thriving place. It was twice, maybe three times the size of Santa Rosa. Perhaps Turner wanted to turn the small town into something of that magnitude and rake in the profits. The noise from the number of people going up and down the boardwalks was in stark contrast to the fairly subdued walks of Santa Rosa.
Coogan entered the first cantina he came across. He pulled his hat down low. His eyes scanned the room. He didn't recognise any of the men from the attacks on Santa Rosa. He tried the next place.
He crossed the room. He took in every face in the lamp glow. Ten of Turner's men were in one corner. They were drunk, yelling abuse at random strangers. Coogan slipped his pistol from its holster. He took his other pistol tucked into his belt at the small of his back. He held his hands behind his flowing overcoat. He went over to the group.
"Howdy, fellers. Any of you know where I can find those sons of bitches who shot my place up last night?"
The group turned. In the second it took them to recognise Coogan he swung his pistols. He blasted shot after shot. His old skills came flooding back. A minute later the men were slumped dead where they had been sitting.
Coogan picked his way through the bodies and scooped up their gun belts. He slung the belts over his shoulders.
"Thank you, fellers. Much obliged."
With their still warm bodies bleeding onto the wooden floor Coogan mounted his horse and headed off into the night.
* * *
At nine o'clock the next morning ten of the men of Santa Rosa were gathered in the saloon. Two days in the desert. That's what they had prepared for. Horses were packed and ready. Coogan entered. He handed each man a gun belt. Each man strapped the belt around their waist in awkward, unfamiliar movements.
The men left in the town, and the families of those off with Coogan, had been told to shut up shop for two days. If any of Turner's men cam calling then they would be told that they would have their answer regarding selling at noon in two days time.
As the men mounted up Coogan caught Pat Richards' eye. He gave him a nod. Richards tapped his hat in reply. Coogan rode hard out into the desert. The others followed. Several hours later he stopped. He told the men they would be setting up camp here. Once camp had been set up and the horses tended to, Coogan gathered the men. They stood around him baking and squinting in the desert sun.
"First thing you gotta know is how to draw."
In one fluid movement his pistol was out of the holster and in his hand. He explained that a quick draw just might save their lives. He told them that a draw should be one smooth motion. Just let the arm flick down and then forwards, like you are swatting a fly. The men listened hard, concentrating. From what Coogan heard they were keeping their nerves at bay by focusing on the fact that they were doing something about their problem. One way or another, things would be sorted out.
Over the next two days Coogan taught them the finer points of being a gunman. He showed them how to aim and aim quick. He showed them how to aim at a man's chest to kill him. He told them little things he had picked up along the way, like never sitting with your back to a room and sleeping with your gun belt hanging off the bed post.
* * *
Michael Turner stared at the store owner's wife. He rubbed his beard in thought.
"Two days, you say? I'm not a patient man. I will be back, as you say, at noon in two days. But don't expect me to be in good humour. This delay will affect the price I give you on your business."
He snatched a bottle from the shelf and launched it at the wall. The woman screamed.
"Be seeing you."
* * *
Two days later. Noon.
Turner and his men thundered towards Santa Rosa. Their horses kicked up a cloud of dust. The riders neared the small town. Turner had fury in his eyes. If the town failed to decide today then he would burn the entire town to the ground.
There was the cracking of rifle fire. Shot after shot rang out. Michael Turner and his men were thrown to the dirt as their horses were hit. They picked themselves up. They dusted the dirt from their clothes. Turner swore. He drew his pistol. His men did the same.
They entered Santa Rosa on foot. The only sound was the crunch of their boots on the dusty track. Then there came the sound of other footsteps on the street.
A row of gunslingers walked out to meet Turner and his men. The gunslingers were dressed in dark coats and hats. The men moved as one. In unison, pistols were whipped from holsters.
"So, that's it, Santa Rosa? Hired guns to face me?"
"We are Santa Rosa," growled one man.
"You sure you want to do this?" said another.
"Think you can take on the whole town?" called a third.
"You got the sand for this, Turner?"
There was silence. Michael Turner stared at the line of men blocking his way into town. They were the townsfolk. And they were unmoving. His eyes found Coogan's glare. He was in the centre of the line.
Coogan stared, his eyes flashed with warning, don't do this. Beside him the young Pat Richards wielded his pistol like he was an outlaw. The two lines of men stood facing each other, watching, waiting, daring the other to make a move.
"Have it your way, Santa Rosa. I will take my enterprise elsewhere," said Turner.
He half turned to leave. Then stopped.
"But there is just one thing before I go."
Turner flicked his gun arm up. He fired off three quick shots. The first shot went wide but the second and third punched Coogan in the chest. As he fell back through the air Coogan fired back. He caught Turner in the throat. He went down. Both men lay dying in the dirt. The men of Santa Rosa opened fire. Turner's men fired back. Gunsmoke and dust filled the air.
As the townsfolk gained the upper hand Turner's leaderless men turned and ran for their lives. The villagers let them leave.
Pat Richards ignored the pain from the bullet in his shoulder. He joined the others beside the body of Will Coogan. The dead gunslinger seemed quite at peace, lying there with his gun in his hand.
"Thank you, Will," he said.