Lorraine Heath western! Well, sort of. The Gunslinger was previously published in a shorter format in the To Tame A Texan anthology back in 1999. The author expanded it a bit (to just over 100 pages) and Avon has reissued it under their Impulse banner. It has some of the hallmarks that I come to expect from a Heath western but ultimately fell short for me thanks to a too big plot in too small a word count.
Chance Wilder is no hero. He's a world-weary, soulless gunslinger. He's not the fastest draw in the west, but he is deadly accurate. He's sitting with his back to the wall in yet another series of endless saloons when a young boy comes running in sporting a bloody, broken nose. His older sister is getting harassed by some local thugs, and having heard that a famed gunslinger was in town, Toby offers the man everything he owns to save his sister. Chance agrees and ends up saving Lillian Madison from nearly being raped by shooting her assailant between the eyes. However she's not terribly pleased that he just killed a man, and she's really not pleased when it turns out Chance was also wounded and she needs to nurse him back to health. Close proximity and the added complications of why Chance was in town in the first place round out the conflict.
The whole time I was reading this I couldn't help thinking, why not expand it to a full length novel? Because ultimately that is the sticking point here. There's a lot of potential for angst here that is defused and a lot of complicated emotions that are left unexplored. This is especially a determent to the heroine, who suffers because of the shorter word count. Her reaction post-almost-rape is no reaction. It's like nothing happened to her. In fact her only reaction is to be Miss Prissy Pants that Chance killed a man. Never mind that that the man had a legacy of harassing her and was two seconds away from raping her. She eventually does have a breakdown moment where it finally seems to hit her, what almost happened to her, and what did happen to her, but it's a brief moment that quickly goes away after Chance holds her.
Likewise Chance has a very intriguing back-story, and while I wanted more of it, there is enough here to make hero-centric readers quite happy. There's also a villain lurking in the background (other than the dead rapist) who wants to push Lil off her land. This is pretty compelling conflict despite the fact that it wouldn't exist if Lil wasn't so blindly prideful. Telling the villain the truth, instead of perpetuating rumors and lies, would have solved all her problems. But noooooo, why ever would she want to do that?!
Everything is, naturally, right as rain in the end - which leads to another issue. It's a very Sunshine Merry Sue Rainbow ending. One I probably would have loved in a longer, full-length novel, but in the shorter novella length? It strains. The villain naturally sees the error of his ways, after Chance spills the beans (not Lil - because of course!), and the epilogue is suitably sappy with Chance's family estrangement getting blissfully swept under the rug.
It was nice, and it was OK - but man, it could have been better. As it stands as a novella, Lil suffered and I never warmed up to her. Chance fares better, but his past is so dark and black I have a hard time buying into a happy ending for him (mostly because every two-bit, would-be gunslinger would come gunning for him looking to make a name for themselves - but whatever). Toby was a real charmer however and the strongest take-away from this story for me. Of course it's hard to not be charmed by a boy who hires a gunslinger to protect his sister and offers him "everything" he owns. Which includes his lucky penny, a good length of string, and a rusty harmonica. Seriously, how could you not fall in love with that kid?
Final Grade = C+