's 2017 Horror Write-off:

Showdown at Sweetheart Ridge

Submitted by Miranda Johansson

The night air was chilly. There was no wind, only a huge, soughing silence, broken only occasionally by the mournful cry of a coyote. The vast astriferous arm of the galaxy wheeled overhead, slower than human lives, above a landscape rendered in funereal shades of purple and gray.

Carlotta Ramos sat by her little fire, sheltered in a little dry gully where a stream had long since petered out. Earlier in the day she had shot a hare, which was now roasting over the fire. Her horse stood tethered nearby, eating grass.

The year was 1851, and California was gold-crazy. In 1848, James W. Marshall had found gold in what was to become the burgeoning town of Coloma, and the three years since had been a strange dream of immigration and industry. A year ago, by the authority of the U.S. Congress, California had become the thirty-first of the United States. There was only one thing nobody had yet brought to California, the joke went, and that was civilization.

Carlotta was cleaning her gun by the light of the fire. The gun was a Colt Paterson rifle that had belonged to her daddy, back before he had died in '39 of a fever of the brain. Now it belonged to her. She made sure she cleaned it every day, though she hadn't yet fired it on this journey. The roasting hare she had shot with a bow and arrow. That was alright for hunting. She was saving her bullets for a grander purpose.

Carlotta had been on the road for a week and change, heading east and north. She'd hitched a ride with a stage from San Francisco to Coloma some ten days back, and had stayed in Coloma for a few days after her arrival. There, she had made inquiries, and bought the horse, and rations to last her some; then she had struck out from Coloma, into the goldfields. To the east, somewhere in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, her quarry waited.

The horse - she hadn't bothered to give it a name - was a fine beast, and Carlotta didn't drive it too hard. She traveled at a measured pace. She wasn't worried about her trail going cold.

She had a sudden feeling there was someone at the fire with her, but when she looked up from her dissembled gun she was alone, but for the horse watching her with its mournful eyes. Carlotta shook her head and looked down at her gun again, which she put together and wiped off with an oilcloth, and returned to its holster.

She ate her hare by her lonesome, and slept.


The early light woke her the following morning. The fire had been reduced to a pile of cinders. On a nearby stone, an early-bird basking lizard regarded her, as though she might do something interesting. She kicked at it to scare it off, and it darted out of sight.

She packed up and led her horse out of the gully, and set off eastwards. By the light of day, the land looked endless. In the east, blue with distance, she could see the rising lower peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Somewhere to her west was the sea, and the San Francisco Bay. This was gold country. She had to take care so she didn't blunder onto some prospector's claim; some of them were armed.

Carlotta sometimes found it hard to believe this was the California she had grown up in. The novelty of statehood was the least of it.

The gold fever had brought more things than just miners to the California highlands. Investors and businessmen came out of the east in a steady trickle, smelling profits. The Physicians had arrived sometime in late 1848. Nobody knew exactly when; one day they had just been there. At first people had taken their arrival as a sure sign of the End Times. Now they were a fact of life, like the sidewinders; just another danger facing the intrepid prospector.

Yup, Carlotta mused, it was a brave new world alright. No two ways about that. When Carlotta had been growing up, in Yerba Buena, they had played vaqueros, or maybe rebels versus redcoats for the kids of more federally-minded families. In Coloma, not two days ago, Carlotta had seen a pair of children playing outside the general store. They couldn't have been older than ten. One had reached out and touched the other on the brow, who had fallen gamely to the dusty ground in a commendable imitation of a corpse. Carlotta hadn't understood the game at the time; it was only later that she realized they must've been playing Physician.

And crime rates had risen to unprecedented heights, in the wake of the gold industry. Swindlers, robbers and outlaws proliferated. California's fledgling law enforcement could barely keep up, and oftentimes vigilante justice was enacted by the mob.

Carlotta was in the latter business.

A little less than a month ago, John Wilbur and the Sweetheart Gang had robbed a San Francisco bank. It was a textbook stick-up, and it went off almost without a hitch, until the very end, when Wilbur shot a bank teller named Gregory McLaury in the gut. McLaury bled out on the floor of the bank, and John Wilbur's Sweetheart Gang made off with $1,500 or so in cold hard cash.

The San Francisco sheriff's office had rustled up enough conscripts for a manhunt, and they had tracked the Sweetheart Gang's circuitous course east, passing south of Coloma and entering the Sierra Nevada goldfields. An hour's ride into the goldfields, they had met a prospector who had met Wilbur and his gang in the course of their escape. Wilbur had asked the prospector to deliver a letter to any law enforcement on their trail, and the prospector now handed the letter over to the sheriff.

The letter said, in Wilbur's tidy hand (for Wilbur was known to be a lettered man, and a learned one besides): "Sorry about the teller fellow - shooting him was an accident, we wanted only the money. DO NOT follow us. This is treacherous country - accidents WILL happen. For your lives and the hygiene of our souls - leave off. Let bygones be bygones. Thank you." It was signed John "Sweetheart" Wilbur, something Wilbur had taken to doing since word had reached him of his popular nickname. He was getting to be a regular folk hero. California's Robin Hood.

The sheriff, perhaps seeing the sense in Wilbur's words (or perhaps not wanting to get the reputation of being the lawman who had sent "Sweetheart" Wilbur to the gallows), had called the manhunt off and returned to San Francisco.

As for McLaury, the bank teller - well, Greg had been a mite older than Carlotta. He was descended from Irish frontiersmen, and he was as pale as fish's belly, but his accent was as American as they came, and he spoke good Spanish. He was the archetypal bank teller: neat, well-spoken, and well-read. All in all, he had been a supremely ordinary individual. The only truly extraordinary thing about him had been that he had loved a person like Carlotta. They would have been married in December.


In Coloma, nobody had known where the Sweetheart Gang's hideout was - or if they did, they hadn't told the location to her.

Wilbur was sometimes called California's Robin Hood, thanks to the rumor that he left part or all of his earnings for poor folk to find. It was said that he hated the banks for lording it over the common folk with their loans and their debts. Some said his family had lost their farm over a defaulted loan, over Virginia way, and that robbing was his way of taking revenge.

The rumor would probably remain unconfirmed. Poor folks coming into illegal money weren't going to tell and have the money taken from them. Carlotta supposed it was possible that everyone she asked in Coloma had received "donations" from old "Sweetheart" Wilbur. Possibly they had been too grateful for his charity to sell him out. Carlotta didn't know about all that. All she knew was that John Wilbur had murdered her fiancé.

She had walked to the eastern limits of Coloma, and looked out on the Sierra Nevada Goldfields. The sun was high, the day was clear, and she could see for miles. Limbs crisscrossed the rugged land like branching capillaries, and converged into throbbing pillars of flesh that stretched away into space. Somewhere out there in the foothills, Wilbur and his cronies were sitting pretty on their haul. It made Carlotta's blood boil. It made her want to head out there blind, and comb the ridges and the valleys until she found their hidey-hole.

That would've been a damn fool thing to do, of course. She would starve long before she found anything. She was beginning to think that maybe coming to Coloma in the first place had been a damn fool thing to do. A doomed errand born of grief and impotent anger.

She became aware of faint sounds, like music. Not Christian music like her mama used to play on the piano; heathen ritual music. Bells and deep rolling drums.

The Physician was right behind her. Carlotta stiffened. She could feel its inhuman limbs whispering against the back of her coat. It extended a long, skinless limb over her shoulder, and an extremity that couldn't rightly be called a finger pointed towards the Goldfields.

Slowly, she nodded, and slowly, the music faded away, until only the wind-sounds remained. When Carlotta had finally dared to turn around, she'd been alone. She had bought the horse that afternoon, and the supplies, and headed east, like the Physician had told her to.


Now she was two days out. She shoveled dirt on the fire-pit, saddled up the horse, and set to riding. Her ride took her into ridged, humpbacked country, like a tablecloth that's been all bunched up, while the sun climbed into the sky. All around her, limb-pillars thick as redwoods and covered in unblinking eyes stretched into the sky like the suspension cables of the world's biggest bridge. They branched when they met the ground, like roots or veins, some as thick as a person's torso, some as thin as sewing thread. The horse instinctively avoided stepping on them.

Carlotta found the ridge because the Physician was standing atop it, an eldritch silhouette against the pale sky, its limbs waving like underwater seaweed. Well, a Physician - Carlotta had no way of knowing that this was the one she had seen in Coloma. Still, she got the feeling that it was the same one.

The ridge was blasted and treeless, with no distinguishing marks. She would've passed it by, if not for the Physician. Sweetheart Ridge, Carlotta thought, and smiled grimly. That sounded like somewhere for infatuated young folk to go. A place with trees and a little privacy. A place for necking. This wasn't that; this was an ugly place.

In the shelter of the next ridge over, Carlotta found a copse of trees, and she tied her horse in the shade of them. "You stay here, now," she said, and stroked the horse's mane, as if it might get the idea to untie her knots and leave without her. Then, she took her daddy's Colt rifle out of its holster, and stalked towards Sweetheart Ridge. The Physician was nowhere to be seen.

She wondered why it was guiding her, if that was indeed what it was doing. It was impossible to know what it might be thinking. Perhaps she was part of some inscrutable medical study.

They were called Physicians because of their seemingly boundless curiosity when it came to anatomy, and because there was no better name for them; certainly they hadn't given one themselves. They didn't speak, and only rarely even acknowledged the presence of humans. It was unclear whether they understood human speech. In fact, a lot was unclear when it came to the Physicians. The most popular theories held that they were ghosts, or angels, or demons.

They couldn't be killed, that much was known. It had happened often enough, in the early days after the Physicians'arrival, that a jumpy prospector with an itchy trigger finger tried to perforate one of them. It still happened, with greenhorns who weren't yet used to California's most curious minority. The Physician under attack would vanish into thin air, or the bullets would slip right through it and come out on the other side, without causing them any apparent damage.

There had been no reported cases of Physicians fighting back, though it was certainly in their power to do so. The Physicians were peaceful and quiet. The ideal neighbors, or so the joke went. The only bodily harm they ever caused to people was when they performed their procedures. Incisions, amputations, vivisections - all sudden, seemingly random, and apparently pointless.

There was a cave-mouth at the foot of the ridge. Within, Carlotta knew with complete certainty, she would find the Sweetheart Gang, lying low. She looked up and gauged the sun. It would be high noon soon enough, and time for the daily eclipse. She would still have a good few hours of daylight left to begin the ride back to Coloma, if she came out of the cave alive.


The cave-mouth led to a long, natural tunnel. The light of day waned. Though her heart was pounding and her mouth was dry, Carlotta went at a snail's pace down the tunnel, letting her eyes slowly adjust to the dimness. She didn't want to be caught unawares. At one point, she thought she heard footsteps, and she stiffened and squeezed the stock of the Colt Paterson - but no bandits appeared.

The tunnel went steadily down and skewed slightly to the east, Carlotta's left. It was dark and deep. The limb-roots didn't reach down this far - at any rate, they didn't yet. The tunnel would've been easily defensible, but there were no sentries. The Sweetheart Gang was careless, Carlotta supposed; the San Francisco County sheriff had taken their threat seriously, and now they believed this remote hideout was safe.

Well, life has a way of turning such beliefs on their heads.

The tunnel grew wider and brighter. There was a ridge of bedrock coming out of the left wall - a long root of the Sierra Nevada - and the loop of the tunnel that passed around the ridge to the right looked as if it had been excavated by human hands. Beyond the ridge, the tunnel opened up into a natural cavern.

Carlotta imagined trying to storm this place. Provided the tunnel she was in was the only entrance, it would have been a difficult task indeed. The ridge of bedrock meant the assailants would not be able to shoot down the tunnel; the defenders could just sit and wait until the assailants came around the ridge and exposed themselves, and pepper them full of lead. If John Wilbur and his Sweetheart Gang had been paying attention, they could've done just that as soon as Carlotta showed her face, but they weren't. She was able to peek around the ridge and get a good look at the cavern beyond.

She saw John Wilbur's handsome face in profile. There he was, the son of a bitch, sitting with two of his lackeys - Gerald "Gerry" Cripps and Blake Anderson - by a big old crate they seemed to be using for a table. Carlotta could hear Joe Suggins, the fourth and final member of the gang, snoring somewhere. There was a kerosene lamp burning on the crate. Wilbur was frowning at his five-card poker hand. In the center of the makeshift tabletop was the pot, a mess of dollar bills; they were gambling with their take from the robbery.

Anderson had his back to Carlotta. Cripps could've looked up and looked her dead in the eye. She tried to strategize, but it was hard. Her blood was pounding in her ears, and what she wanted most of all was to turn tail and run. They hadn't seen her yet - it wasn't too late. But she couldn't, of course. She had to finish this.

She didn't feel good about shooting an unarmed man in the back, but that was the only way she could see. Spare Anderson, and he would soon be an armed man facing her. She nodded to herself: it was a necessary sin. Shoot the one man, show them she meant business, then get them to raise their hands, and take their guns from them. Okay. She took a deep breath.


She came round the ridge with the gun up, aimed it at Anderson's back, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Wilbur and Cripps both looked up and saw her. Cripps'eyes went wide, and he opened his mouth. Wilbur took one look at the rifle, threw himself flat on the floor and started crawling. Cripps got to his feet and shouted something Carlotta didn't catch.

She had left the rifle's safety catch on. Damn fool. She fiddled desperately with it. Anderson turned around with a dumb look on his face that would've made her laugh in any other situation. Wilbur was out of sight.

At last she got the safety off, and she raised the gun again and shot wildly. The buckshot whizzed past Anderson's slack-jawed face, and took off three of Cripps'fingers. Anderson finally seemed to grasp what was happening, and he tried to scramble to his feet, but lost his footing and fell to his hands and knees.

"Alright, you sonsabitches," Carlotta tried to shout, but her voice came out weak and quavery. Nobody seemed to hear her. Cripps was howling in agony. Anderson had raised both hands, and was repeating "don't shoot, don't shoot," over and over again.

Carlotta took a couple of steps into the cavern, and there was Wilbur, along with Suggins, who was bleary-eyed and wearing only his undershirt. Both of them had six-shooters in their hands. Carlotta had never had a gun pointed at her before, and she decided she didn't like it at all. She trained her rifle at Wilbur's chest.

"Now, ma'am, I'm sure this can all be resolved without resorting to any more violence," Wilbur said. His voice was calm and respectful. He had a reputation for being the politest outlaw in the United States. "Just lower the gun."

"You'll kill me if I do that," Carlotta said, although she feared they'd kill her either way. Why had she ever come here? Goddamned fool girl.

"Not unless you force my hand," Wilbur said. Cripps was still wailing, and without taking his eyes off Carlotta Wilbur barked: "You quit that yammering, Gerry!"

"She shot my hand off," Cripps moaned.

"Not all of it," Wilbur said. "Just you take it easy, and keep your voice down until this situation has been defused."

What Carlotta had intended to say when she saw Wilbur was: John Wilbur, I'm apprehending you and delivering you to the sheriff of San Francisco and the justice of the law. Come quietly. What she said instead was: "You killed my fiancé."

Wilbur's brow furrowed. The hand not holding the gun reached up to scratch at his hair. "The bank teller? Aw, hell, that was an accident. He made a sudden move and spooked me. Instinct took over. Why, you can't hardly blame me for having instincts. Do you blame the beasts of the field and birds of the air for the prey they catch?"

"Shut up," Carlotta said. She looked at Wilbur's sure, relaxed grip on his gun, and knew she was going to die. She had wanted to watch him hang for his crimes, but it looked now as if that would not happen. Maybe, instead, she could take John Wilbur to Hell with her.

Then, without warning, the kerosene lamp flickered and flared. It cast the faces of the Sweetheart Gang in sharp relief and shadowed their eyes. On the cave wall behind Wilbur, Carlotta saw with perfect clarity the towering, ghostly silhouette of the Physician.

Her attention wavered for only a split second, but it was enough. Wilbur saw the opportunity, and took it.

The report of his gun was deafening. The bullet shredded Carlotta's left eyelid, pulped her eyeball and shattered the orbit of her eye socket. It lodged itself in her head, scrambling her brains and snuffing the life out of her. She fell to the cave floor (in a commendable imitation of the playing children in Coloma). The last thing she heard before she died was the sound of shooting-irons clattering to the floor.

In the same second as Carlotta lost her sight and her life, the Physician appeared, from deeper into the cave where there ought to have been no point of ingress. It moved with a dancer's grace, and with the limp joints of a marionette. It seemed untroubled by gravity. It was covered in eyes. Wilbur and his gang all saw it at the same time; Wilbur and Suggins dropped their guns, the barrel of Wilbur's own still smoking, and they all fell to their knees.

The Sweetheart Gang weren't the kneeling sort, but the action was all but reflexive. The automatic human response to the proximity of something as beautiful and alien as a Physician was awe and submission.

The Physician made no sound, though there were distant noises like bells and drums. Wilbur remained on one knee, eyes to the floor, as it came near him. It reached out with one graceful appendage, and touched his face.

He drew a sharp breath, then made a strangled noise of distress. He attempted to stand. Tears gushed from his eyes, leaving streaks on his dirty cheeks. He lost his footing and fell backwards, making suppurating grunts, as if he was trying and failing to speak. His hands hovered uncertainly over his face.

The Physician had turned away, already seeming to have lost interest in him. It leaned down and fussed over Carlotta's still-warm corpse. Its touch removed the bullet fragments from Carlotta's brain, and reconstituted her ocular orbit and her eyeball, and restored the life to her. She drew breath like a drowning woman.

The rest of the Sweetheart Gang took one look at the scene: their stricken leader rolling on the floor, and the sinuous form of the Physician; the dead bounty hunter sitting up, and the way her awful new eye seemed to look right through them. A wordless decision was reached with admirable alacrity. As one man, they jackrabbited out of the cave without looking back.

Carlotta got to her feet. She had an odd weightless feeling, like the feeling of diving into water from a high place, but constant. The Physician was regarding her silently, and Carlotta felt the pressure of its many eyes. It terrified her - she wanted nothing more than to hide her face like a child until it went away - but she supposed she ought to be grateful to it as well, for saving her life.

Then again, it had rendered her bounty useless. The authorities wanted Wilbur alive, but it was too late for that. In a daze, she picked the Colt Paterson rifle off the floor, and walked slowly forward.

The Physician's touch had removed Wilbur's mandible, as well as the majority of his maxilla and his left zygomatic bone, all without breaking the skin. The lower half of his face hung like an empty burlap sack. He was moaning and wailing as best he could.

She tried not to look at the horror of his face while she took aim, but everything was very clear and sharp. The shot rang out. John "Sweetheart" Wilbur convulsed once, and lay still.

The Physician neither spoke nor moved, but Carlotta got the sudden, inexplicable feeling that she had disappointed it. It disappeared, as abruptly and noiselessly as it had come. Suddenly it just wasn't there anymore. The ritual sound of drums and bells faded.

With the smell of gunsmoke in her nostrils, Carlotta looked across the room, at the large crate the Sweetheart Gang had been using for a table. Their poker game was in disarray. Cripps had knocked the deck over and cards had poured over the edge of the crate and onto the ground. A single card lay upturned among the confusion of chips and patterned card backs; even from across the room, Carlotta could see the single black pip. The Ace of Teeth, with its black silhouette of a human molar.

She crossed the cave and picked the card up. It seemed significant somehow. She tucked it in the pocket of her coat. Then she left the corpse of John Wilbur on the floor of the cave, and returned to the moonlit surface.


When she came out of the cave, the eclipse had begun. Above hung the Physician Moon, vast and embryonic and clustered with eyes each the size of California; the sun was passing behind it, and it cast its great shadow on the land. All around, breaking the horizon, Carlotta could see its huge trunk-like limbs, with which it clung to the Earth.

It had come when the Physicians did, or they had come with it. One day it was just there, putting down roots. According to astronomers and such folk as understood these things, the Physician Moon was smaller than Earth's moon, but it hung closer to the ground, and so it appeared much, much bigger. When Carlotta looked up, she thought she could see every detail of its mottled surface, despite the distance and the darkness of the eclipse.

She was shaking. With the shock of what had happened down in the cave, yes, but with anger as well. The numbness was fading, and fury was taking its place. She met the manifold gaze of the Physician Moon and spoke aloud to no-one.

"Why? Why me?" she asked. "Why only me? If you can fix people, why ain't you done it before?"

The only response was the sound of wind crossing the brown land. The Physician that had brought her here (and brought her back) was nowhere to be seen.

Grief flooded Carlotta's veins like venom. Her fiancé's murderer was dead, and she felt no better. She felt like dying. A sob wracked her, and tears began to stream from her undamaged eye. The eye the Physician had touched didn't cry, and it never would again in her life.

Her voice rose to a hoarse shout. "Why don't you help people that have had accidents? Or sick folks? Why didn't you help Gregory, you heartless fucks?" Her voice cracked, and she sat heavily down on the slope of the ridge with her daddy's Colt Paterson rifle on her knees, and she wept.

Footsteps came out of the cave mouth to her right, and a voice said: "Aw, miss, don't you cry."

Carlotta looked up, her vision unblurred by tears, at least out of her left eye. Standing next to her on the ridge, joggling his jaw back and forth with one hand, was John "Sweetheart" Wilbur. He looked none the worse for wear; his face was anatomically complete once more.

"You're dead," Carlotta said, her voice thick with weeping.

"Yup," Wilbur said. "And I sure didn't leave a pretty corpse. Mind if I sit next to you?"

"You killed my fiancé," Carlotta said, but without much conviction. The anger had burned itself out. Now she just felt cold and tired and sad. Her hatred for Wilbur had lost its sting, now that he was dead.

"And I'm awful sorry about that," the ghost of John Wilbur said, and sat himself down on the slope next to her. He craned his neck and squinted up at the Physician Moon. "And you killed me in return. That's just the way it goes, I reckon."

"Why can I see you?" she asked.

Wilbur shrugged. Then he reached up and, with one finger, pulled at his eyelid, exposing the moist pink flesh underneath his left eye. "Reckon it's got something to do with that bit of ocular surgery you got done on you. Ma'am, you are in for a shock the next time you look in a mirror."

"But you are dead, ain't you?" Carlotta asked. She had to make sure. After all, couldn't the Physician have brought Wilbur back, the way it had done with her?

"Yup," Wilbur said. Then, as if he had heard her thoughts, he said, "I understand your suspicion, ma'am, but I don't reckon I'm getting a second chance, like you did. I think that spooky sonofagun took something from me and put it in you to make you whole again. Law of conservation of energy, right?"

Carlotta wasn't familiar with that law, but she figured she understood what he was driving at.

"Listen," Wilbur said, sounding as if he was broaching a difficult subject. "I know we've woven kind of a tangled web, here. I shoot your man, I shoot you, you shoot me... I just wanted to say no hard feelings. Wouldn't have been no life anyway with half my face gone."

Carlotta said nothing. The hatred was down to a dull ache, but it was still there. Wilbur waited, and when she didn't reply, he sighed. Then, after another interval of silence, he chuckled.

"Funny thing - even with that done to my face, I was tryin'to beg you not to shoot me. I wanted to stay alive. Now I'm dead, and it's a real relief. Like pullin'a tooth, only I reckon that's the biggest tooth you'll pull in your life." Wilbur paused, and shook his head. "Aw, listen to me yammering," he said, in a tone of voice which implied he had committed a social faux pas. "You've been dead already. You probably know exactly what I'm talking about."

"I don't remember it," Carlotta said, which was the truth.

"It feels... good," Wilbur said. "Real good." He paused and looked up at the Physician Moon. "I don't reckon I'm long for this world. Sunlight'll do that to a ghost, I reckon. I wonder where I'm heading next."

"You're going to Hell," Carlotta said.

Wilbur tipped his head from side to side, weighing this statement in his mind. "I did some evil, sure. I did some good too, not to toot my own trumpet - I know the Big Man don't cotton to that. But, you know, my philosophy is this: if God is all-powerful and all-loving, I don't reckon he'd send even the most wayward sheep of his flock to Hell. I think there's only one place we all go after this. Maybe I'll see your boy there. Maybe we'll all be able to laugh about this someday."

That made Carlotta laugh despite herself. Partly because it was a heartening philosophy, but mostly because the image of Greg McLaury in Heaven was an amusing one. He had looked so at home in the bank; it was hard to imagine him fitting in with the angels, trying to learn to play the harp.

"I hate to see you like this," Wilbur said, with what sounded like genuine sympathy in his voice. "Knowing I'm responsible, at least in part. I figure maybe I can do one last bit of good before I leave this Earth. A bit of advice: pull the tooth."

Carlotta stared at him. He simply met her gaze with an earnest expression on his face. "Are you telling me to kill myself?" she asked.

Wilbur winced and grimaced. "Well, it don't sound too good, phrased like that. The good part comes after. Think of it this way: either I walk through the Pearly Gates all by my lonesome, or I get to escort you. Maybe I'll play the proud father, giving you away to your fiancé. I bet he'll be waiting for you. I bet weddings in Heaven are truly something."

Carlotta said nothing. She looked down at the Colt Paterson rifle in her lap.

"Sweetheart" Wilbur's voice was kind and gentle. "Don't wait. You don't want to wait to pull a tooth. You want to get it over with as soon as you can. The waiting is worse than the pulling."

Slowly, as in a dream, Carlotta raised the rifle. The barrel tasted oily and metallic. Her fingers found the trigger. She looked up at the many-limbed shadow of the Physician Moon and imagined what it would be like to meet Gregory at the Gates to the Holy Kingdom.

"That's it, now," Wilbur whispered. "One little twinge and this will all be over."

Carlotta closed her eyes, or tried; there wasn't much eyelid left to cover her left eye, so it was more of a one-eyed wink.

"Do it," Wilbur said. He sounded hungry. "Do it. Pull the trigger. Do it."

The eclipse ended and the sun came out, flooding the land in sudden, shocking light. Even with all the talk of the Good Lord, Carlotta had somehow forgotten just who it was, according to the Bible, that dealt in temptations. John Wilbur, she thought. The man they called "Sweetheart," because he could win people over even when he was pointing a gun at them. John Wilbur, the outlaw bank robber. The murderer.

The hatred came back in a flash. She jerked the rifle out of her mouth as if the barrel had burned her lips, and wheeled around to point it at Wilbur instead - but he was gone. There was only empty air where he had been sitting. Just as well, she supposed. She couldn't hardly hope to menace a specter with a shooting-iron, even one as fine as her daddy's Colt Paterson.

She was alone in the Sierra Nevada foothills, alone among the grasping extremities of the Physician Moon, and the unblinking stares of its eyes. John Wilbur was dead by her hand.


In the years to come, Carlotta Ramos would become one of the most renowned guns-for-hire in the United States of America. It was said about her that she never missed a shot, and it was true. It was the eye, the one the Physician had fixed. It was sharper than ever, and it saw things invisible to everyone else. Things like the ghost of John Wilbur. It saw things before they happened, sometimes.

The eye was a smooth uniform white, like porcelain, with a tiny black pinprick of a pupil. The Physician that had revivified her had not seen fit to reconstitute her eyelid; all that remained of that was a vestigial fold of skin that twitched when she blinked.

It frightened children. She took to saying she had lost the eye in a gunfight (which wasn't strictly a lie) and wore an eyepatch, so as not to make people uncomfortable. That was alright - that eye could see perfectly fine, even with the eyepatch covering it.

On several different occasions, she tried to put it out. Once, she used an iron poker, warmed red-hot in a fire. The flesh around the eye sizzled and scarred, but when the shattering pain subsided, the eye was not only still there, it was intact.

That was all in the future. For now, Carlotta had a long ride ahead of her. The horse was still tied to the trees on the other side of the ridge, and she untied it and mounted it, and began her journey back to Coloma, and to what passed for civilization among Californians.