A deadly marksman is on the hunt to find his missing sister in this exhilarating new Ralph Compton Western.
One terrible day, fifteen-year-old Leif Gunnarson comes home to find his family home on fire and a gruesome scene inside: his parents are tied up, on the brink of death among the hellish flames, and his sister is nowhere to be found. His father can barely gasp a name: Simkins. And with that, Leif has his life’s mission—to track down Luther Simkins, notorious outlaw and gang leader, and find his sister.
Along the way, Leif finds a temporary home in Wyoming Bob’s Wild West Show. He has an innate talent with firearms but needs to hone those skills until he can outshoot anyone, even Simkins. Touring the West as the star performer known as Trickshot, Leif finally gets wind of an outlaw who could lead him to his sister. It will be the most important showdown of his life—but will his sharpshooting be a match for the shocking tricks the outlaw has up his sleeve?
Release date: March 30, 2021
Print pages: 304
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Ralph Compton Shot to Hell
Six gunmen," Wyoming Bob Jenks called at the top of his lungs. He thrust an arm high enough in the air to be sure every eye was on him. He need not have worried. The gathered crowd hardly let out a breath as it pressed closer, intent on the show. "Six men, all steely eyed and possessing nerves icier than the Yukon winter. Every last one of them is a marksman of the first water. They never miss. And they are all facing . . . Leif Johann Gunnarson, otherwise known throughout these great United States and across the vast Atlantic Ocean to all the crowned heads of Europe-"
Wyoming Bob paused again to build suspense.
"Known as Trickshot!"
A cheer went up from the crowd.
Leif Gunnarson strode out into the street, shoulders pulled back and chin held high. He wore a ten-gallon hat of the whitest felt. A ring of hammered Mexican silver conchas circled the crown. Wrapped around his right arm writhed a rattlesnake skin. The long rattles hung down and clicked ominously as he moved. Given enough whiskey, he'd tell the story of how he killed that western diamondback rattler, one shot through the mouth. His second shot tore the length of its body, skinning it so he could wrap the distinctively patterned hide around his arm. Leif halted in the middle of the street, hands resting on the butts of his matched pistols, etched elaborately and worth more than anyone in this miserable town would ever pay. As Wyoming Bob continued to laud his reputation, Leif whirled about. His bleached-white buckskin fringe made small snapping noises as he moved. A rehearsed movement with his six-shooter caused the fringe on his right arm to crack like a whip and the snake's rattles to underscore the deadly move.
This always brought the crowd around. Everyone stared at him now. He continued his slow advance into the center of the circle formed by the townspeople. His elaborately tooled boots, crafted by the finest boot maker in Mexico, kicked up delicate clouds of dust. With a practiced eye, Leif stopped where he could face off against the six anxious men at the far side of the ring. Not a one had the look of a real gunslinger. If he had to bet, one or two of them hadn't fired their six-shooter in a month of Sundays. The rest would be lucky not to shoot themselves in the foot-or wound the man standing next to them.
"Ladies and gentlemen, let's give him a royal greeting-the man known far and wide as Trickshot!"
Leif waited a moment, then raised both arms high over his head. This always brought huge cheers. It was no different now. In a way, he felt sorry for the citizens of this town, whose name he couldn't even remember. He was the biggest thing to have come through since the Fourth of July parade the month before. Their lives were dreary, and he was entertainment. Entertainment mixed with a hint of danger. The advance riders from Wyoming Bob's Wild West Show had whispered of the gunfights he had been in, the outlaws he had shot, the owlhoots he'd brought to justice with his accurate six-shooters.
He slowly lowered his arms and rested his hands on the hard leather holsters tied down at either hip. A small shrug of his shoulders produced a lightning draw. The etched silver Peacemakers seemed to appear in his grip as if by magic. Leif was fast and knew it, but he put extra effort into today's show. He wasn't certain why, but it gave the fine citizens something more to whisper about.
"Never seen faster." "Chain lightning!" "I swear the gun vanished from his holster and just showed up in his hand."
He had heard it all. And he enjoyed the adulation.
Leif slowly turned, the pistols leveled at the crowd. His blue eyes rivaled the Wyoming sky above for clarity, for brilliance, for just a touch of ice. As he made a complete turn, he studied the ladies in the crowd. It did no good to build a reputation, mostly fabricated out of whole cloth, if it served no purpose other than to bring customers in for the Wild West Show. Impressing the attractive young ladies made putting on the outrageous getup worthwhile. He had no idea why anyone believed his tall tales when he wore the white buckskins and towering hat and boots that hurt his feet because they were a size too small, but they did.
"Applaud your six gunslingers, daring all to call out Trickshot!" Wyoming Bob motioned. A couple roustabouts pushed a corridor through the crowd to reveal six whiskey bottles sitting on six water barrels. "Your champions, your paladins of the pistol, will each get a single shot in an attempt to break the bottle before them. It should be easy enough. One bottle, one bullet!"
Wyoming Bob herded the six men to a spot thirty feet from their targets. He made sure they were in a line and not too likely to kill one another. Making a sweeping gesture, he took off his hat and held it high.
"When I signal, you gents will draw and fire. Just one round. Only one or it's cheating!" He stirred a little breeze with his hat, then swept it downward.
The six men drew and fired. Leif watched to see if any of them really knew how to shoot. Out on the range, they had skill enough to chase off a coyote or bring down a rabbit. Nothing more.
He tried not to wince when they fired. The reports came as a ragged volley. Two of the bottles cracked and fell over. Four remained unscathed.
"Gentlemen, you killed two and scared the bejesus out of the other four!" Wyoming Bob waited for the guffaws from the men in the crowd and the tiny giggles hidden behind hands from the ladies. "Now you'll see how it's really done. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I give you the master marksman of the Americas . . . Trickshot."
Leif stepped forward and looked at the barrels, then shook his head.
"What? What's this? The legendary Trickshot is refusing to meet the challenge? I can't believe it. Is he admitting defeat to your town's finest gunmen?"
Leif waited for the shocked reaction. He knew how long to wait. He had seen the same disbelief and even contempt before a dozen times over. At precisely the right instant, he called out, "Twelve!"
"What? What are you saying, Trickshot?"
Wyoming Bob already had others from the show in motion to set up a full dozen old whiskey bottles, two on each of the barrels. Though empty of liquor, the bottles were filled with water.
"I'll shoot twelve, Wyoming Bob, but not from where they stood." Leif reached behind him, not even looking. One of the roustabouts dropped the reins to a snowy-white stallion into his hand. He spun about and easily vaulted into the saddle. With a tug on the reins, he got the powerful horse moving away from the targets.
"Wait, Trickshot-the bottles are over here!" Wyoming Bob pointed. Members of the Wild West Show began circulating through the crowd, taking bets. Putting on a free show was not in Bob Jenks's makeup. He'd rather wrestle a wildcat than let a single dime go uncollected.
Leif tapped his heels against the stallion's flanks and rocketed forward. He drew the six-gun on his left hip and shot across the saddle as the horse pounded along at a full gallop. Six times he shot. Six of the water-filled bottles exploded. The addition of the liquid made each hit look that much more spectacular.
He drew back on the reins. The white stallion dug in its heels, kicked up a cloud of dirt, then wheeled around. Leif drew the pistol on his right hip and, again firing across the saddle, took out the remaining six bottles. He returned his Peacemaker to its holster with a flourish and kicked free of the stirrups so he could stand on the saddle as White Lightning trotted back to the crowd. Hands aloft, Leif whipped off his hat and waved it about to loud cheers from everyone.
His practiced eyes watched the members of the Wild West Show as they collected their bets. Leif knew within a dollar or two how much they had collected. This wasn't the richest town in Wyoming, certainly not as prosperous as Cheyenne, where they had spent an entire week, but he had earned Wyoming Bob enough to keep the show owner happy.
Happy and provisioned with bottles full of whiskey. Leif wondered how many of those bottles shattered dead center by his bullets had been drained by the show's owner.
He dropped into the saddle, then slid off to stand at the edge of the crowd. It took only a few seconds for his admirers to press close. He shook hands and boldly kissed the extended hand of a particularly pretty young lady. Her mother started to protest, so Leif moved on and planted a kiss on the top of another little girl's bonnet. This produced cheers, and the girl blushed and buried her face in her mother's skirts.
"Accept this trophy, madame," Leif said, reaching to his gun belt and drawing out a golden bullet. He handed it to the woman. Startled, she took it, then passed it to her daughter. By then Leif had winked broadly at the lovely lass whose hand he had kissed. He hoped he could make the woman's acquaintance later on, after she'd had a brief glimpse at the acts the Wild West Show would present the next night. It was about all that kept the grinding routine of the show from driving him plumb loco. Even with feminine company . . .
"You really good, or was that some kinda sneaky trick?" The man asking caused Leif to stand a little straighter. Every now and then, he came across a real gunfighter. This one had the look. His rough clothing was dusty from the trail. The six-shooter slung in a cross-draw holster showed hard use and good care for all that. The way the gunman stood hid the handle of his six-gun. It wouldn't have surprised Leif to see a few notches carved into it.
From the man's attitude, any notches were likely to have been earned with a slower man's life. Leif wished he had taken time to reload. Even the golden bullet he had given the little girl's mother slipped into an empty chamber would have made him feel a mite easier. Both his pistols were empty.
"What do you mean by calling it a trick?"
"I've seen cheats before," the man said. He stroked a stubbled chin. His dark eyes never left Leif's. As if thinking on the matter, he added, "A man with a rifle some distance off can take out the bottle and make it look as if you're better than you claim." He cleared his throat, then hawked a dark gob into the dirt an inch in front of Leif's fancy boots.
"There wasn't any cheating going on," Leif said. "Why don't you come on out to the show this weekend and see for yourself? Lots of trick roping, fancy riding, and-"
"I can do all that. Where's the thrill?" He gave Leif a long, hard look from his toes to the white crown of the ten-gallon hat. The sneer told exactly what he thought of the goat-roping imitation cowboy. Leif didn't much care for it, but picking a fight with a killer was something he avoided. Men like this enjoyed watching death all around them, and, as quick and accurate as he was, Leif had never shot it out with another gunman. The notion of killing an opponent made him a bit queasy.
"I'll get you free tickets. You and-"
"You're not very good with those hoglegs, are you? You're all show and no go." The cowboy squared off, ready to go for his holstered pistol.
Leif had seen plenty of killers in his day. Gun handlers, men with sharp eyes and perfect aim. He'd avoided them all.
"You're right about one thing, mister. I shoot targets, not men." Leif was aware of the crowd gathering around him. Such an admission might destroy any box office the next day. Who wanted to see a gunslick and trickshot artist who confessed to being nothing more than a gussied-up actor?
"I'll shoot you for them two six-shooters of yours. I've taken a fancy to the etching. And they're .45s. All I got is a trusty Colt Navy." The man turned slightly to show the butt of his six-gun in its cross-draw holster. He twitched his hip just a little.
Leif hated himself for it, but he flinched, expecting the gunman's fist to fill up with the pistol's handle. He got a mocking laugh.
"Give me the guns since you ain't got any more use for them." The man's tone came cold and level. He brooked no argument. He was going to take Leif's pistols and humiliate him in front of everyone in town. By now whispers rose almost to an audible level. Leif was sure everyone overhearing the exchange damned him for being a coward. But what was he to do? Was it worth someone-maybe him-dying over a set of fancy pistols?
"Now, you can't expect a master gunman like Trickshot here to bet both of his pieces," Wyoming Bob said, coming up and interposing himself between the two.
"Why not? He ain't intendin' on usin' them for anything worthwhile." The gunman tried to move around Wyoming Bob, but the ringmaster was a born showman. He cut him off and took control of the crowd.
"One pistol. That'll be the bet. You and the best marksman on this or any other continent will shoot it out. There, boys, over there. Set up more bottles. Lots of them. And make the range something worthy of our competitors!"
A cheer went up from the crowd. Leif watched the gunman closely. The man had blood in his eye and didn't cotton to being thwarted like this. The tenseness in his face changed as Leif studied every rut and cut on the tanned face. He went from a readiness to kill to a determination that approached plumb loco.
"There you gents are. Six bottles each, set on barrels all the way down the street. First one's only twenty feet off. The sixth bottle's sitting on a rain barrel close to a hundred feet away. Just getting close enough to scare that bottle a mite will take some fancy shooting." Wyoming Bob let the two adversaries take their places, side by side.
Leif stared down the impromptu range. If he took his time and aimed, this wasn't a difficult chore for him, but the rules were being made up as they went.
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