The White Shark




Jenny Guttridge



It took all of the self-control that Ben Cartwright could summon to keep himself from crumpling the flimsy scrap of paper in his iron-hard fist and throwing the mangled remains across the room. He was well aware that the four men who sat with him around the polished, rectangular table in the lamp-lit, cream painted room were watching him closely, carefully noting every nuance and shade of expression that crossed his face. He wouldn’t allow them the satisfaction of seeing him display his anger openly or his sense of despair. Hard, sharp and dark, his gaze swept ‘round the table, piercing and penetrating the thoughts and the motives behind each guarded face.


In the seat to his left was Montgomery Deakin; his bony hands clenched and unclenched on the table in front of him. The stringy grey wattles on his scrawny neck shook like those of a turkey faced with execution before Thanksgiving Day. His small eyes were anxious; he was afraid. He was wondering what would happen if the Colossus should fall. Would he bring the house of the gods tumbling down with him and shatter all their lives along with his own?


Ben’s eyes moved on. In the chair next to Deakin was Dolf Meiser. Meiser was a man of recent Germanic descent: blue eyed, blunt mannered and broad in the chest; he was as shrewd as they came, careful with money and even more circumspect with information. Ben didn’t doubt that Meiser knew all his business before he knew it himself.


At the end of the table, in the seat facing Ben, sat Janus Cranmere, a man of monumental proportions, big in stature and in power and in influence. He might have earned his money differently, but he was as rich a man as Ben was himself. A principal player in many strange financial games, Cranmere would wait to see which way Ben jumped before he made his own move.


Last of all, Ben looked to his right. Artimus Tollerman was, perhaps, the most dangerous man of the lot. Black haired and black hearted, he always played his cards close to his chest; it was hard to read the man’s thoughts. Ben imagined that he saw a glimmer of humour in the long lashed, Hispanic eyes.


Who were his friends and who were his enemies? That was something Ben had to decide. He did know that, for the moment, he didn’t dare to trust any of them.


The room was silent except for the steady tick of the clock. Beyond the closed window, the sky was quite grey, promising more snow as the evening approached. The constant noise of the traffic in the street two floors below was muted and muffled. At that precise moment, that room contained the five most powerful men in the State of Nevada, after the Comstock kings. There wasn’t a man among them that Ben would call friend.


Carefully, Ben smoothed the paper between his blunt fingers and laid it down flat on the table. His hand didn’t shake. “So,” he said, his voice a deep rumble. “Who is this Nathan Kincaid?”


Cranmere pulled hard on a fat, Havana cigar, then paused to inspect the glowing tip. The look he sent Ben down the length of the table contained a coy speculation that didn’t become him and a faint air of amused reproach that wasn’t entirely concealed by the smoke. “Are you telling us that you don’t know? Kincaid arrived from Sacramento about three weeks ago. Came up on the stage from the Reno railhead. He calls himself an entrepreneur." 


It was a term Ben hadn’t encountered before. He didn’t like the sound of it, and now he was cross as well as angry. “I’ve been busy out at the ranch,” he said gruffly. It sounded like an excuse and a poor one at that. Small smiles touched the lips of three of the men.


“Perhaps you spend too much time out at the ranch,” Meiser suggested mildly.


Ben harrumphed and cleared his throat loudly. What Meiser said was probably true. Ben was and always had been a hands-on rancher – a man unwilling to relinquish authority, to let go the reins. These city based business men had no concept of the investment of time and physical effort involved in running a mining, cattle ranching and timber operation the size and complexity of the Ponderosa. Neither, he supposed, did they care. He certainly wasn’t about to explain it. He drew a long breath to steady his nerves and looked again at the paper. It was hard to make sense of the neat rows of figures and the words written there. They had come as a complete surprise. One thing was certain: what they spelled out was disaster.


“These contracts were binding,” he said at last. “Both for the cattle and for the timber.”


Cranmere puffed his cigar. Ben got the feeling he was enjoying this. “You know as well as any of us that contracts can be gotten around – if you have the right lawyers.”


Ben put his hand to his temple, an unconscious gesture that gave his confusion away. “How could he do this? He’s undercut my prices by thirty percent.”


“It’s easy enough to do, Ben.” Tollerman leaned forward onto the table; his liquid black eyes were intent. “Kincaid is a ruthless man. He uses his wealth to buy out the mortgages of small ranchers and farmers, or he lends them money and then calls in the loans. When he has control he can exert pressure on them to supply cattle or timber or anything else he wants at rock bottom prices. He’ll undercut you, even sell at a loss, to put you out of business. Once he has your customers and you can’t fight him any more, he can charge what prices he likes.”


Ben found that his hand had closed into a fist, crumpling the paper into a tight little ball.  He straightened it out. “But why me? And why now?”


“Face it, Cartwright,” Cranmere said from the end of the table. “You’ve overstretched yourself. What with shipping route to China and the coalmines in Pennsylvania, you’re over extended. If you’d been watching your back, Kincaid wouldn’t have been able to sneak up on you the way he has.”


Ben accepted the reproof. He knew they were right. His shoulders sagged just a little. It was all too much for one man to do.


The meeting dragged on for another hour with discussions on the business of Virginia City and of wider issues that concerned the State. Afterwards, Ben couldn’t remember much of what was said. His mind was running around and around like a rat in a trap. There didn’t seem any way out of his dilemma. He had timber already cut, logs trimmed and ready to haul. What was worse were the cattle. He could stockpile the logs in readiness for the day when he found a buyer. Four and five year old steers were nothing but a liability: damn fool animals eating their way through the summer grazing and the winter feed. It wasn’t like the old days when a man could measure his wealth in beeves. Nowadays, it was all market share and premiums, delivery dates and bonus. It made Ben’s head ache.


When the meeting was finally over, the men all shook hands, agreeing to meet again in a calendar month.  Deakin scuttled away quickly, back to his counting house. Ben could imagine him ensconced on a stool, wearing knitted mittens, warming his fingers over a candle while he counted his money like the character he had read about once in a Dickensian novel. On another day, he might have found the vision funny. Cranmere and Meiser wished Ben a cordial good evening and then went off to share dinner, their heads tilted together, still discussing business as they went. This time, Ben wasn’t invited. It wasn’t a slight, just a natural progression of events. Already, he felt himself excluded from the club of the State’s richest men.


Ben collected his hat and stepped through the door. He was startled to find Artimus Tollerman waiting for him just outside in the hallway. Tollerman was a tall man, as tall as Ben and something of a dandy in his elegant, tailor made suit. His eyes were shielded and his face gave nothing away. The two men fell into step, pacing slowly to the head of the stairs. “Just a word of caution, Ben.” Tollerman said.


“What’s that?” Ben was suspicious. Tollerman wasn’t the type to give anything away, not even friendly advice.


“This‘ll be just the start of it. I know Kincaid, and I know how he operates. I’ve seen it before on the coast and in the Sacramento valley. He’ll bleed you and bleed you until you’re dead.”


Ben stopped walking and looked him straight in the eyes. “What do you mean?”


Tollerman hesitated – Ben could see him working out in his mind just how much he wanted to say. “He won’t come at you with a knife or a gun. He’s too clever for that. You know what they call him, don’t you?”


Ben gazed at him warily. “Why don’t you tell me?”


Tollerman smiled, showing perfect white teeth. “They call him The White Shark. He’ll just go on taking great big chunks out of that tough old hide of yours until you fall over, and there are some in town that would be happy to help him do it.”


“Would you like to name any names?”


Tollerman’s eyes slid around the hotel lobby. “I don’t think so. Not at the moment. Just remember that some people will be ready and willing to pick up the pieces.”


He put his silverbelly hat on his head, and Ben watched him stroll away. It was clear that the man had enjoyed the encounter. For Ben’s part, he wasn’t so sure. Ben crossed the hotel lobby and pushed through the heavy glass doors. Outside, the tainted air was bitterly cold, and now, it was almost dark. The streetlights on ‘C’ street had already been lit. Neither the gathering dark nor the cold had any effect on  the life of the town. And endless stream of horses, wagons and mules ploughed furrows into the dirt of the street, churning it into mud, and people jostled shoulder to shoulder for space on the boardwalks.  After the ordered quiet of the upstairs room, it was a noisy, hectic place.


As had been promised by the glowering afternoon, it was snowing again: not heavily, just a few big, fluffy flakes that drifted down to join a billion of their fellows in grim dissolution. One or two settled on Ben’s silvered head.


He felt a twinge of nostalgia. Virginia City had changed vastly since the early days when tents and tarpaper shacks had sprouted like mushrooms and the slopes of Mount Davidson had resounded to the cry of “Gold!” Now it was silver, and the steam driven pumps filled the air with their thumping, and the ore-wagons plied back and forth day and night to the stamping mills. Even the buildings were different. Canvas and paper had given way to pine logs and clapboard and then to metal and stone. Now there was talk of bringing the railroad to town. The old times were passing away, and the future already arriving.


Ben shook himself firmly by the metaphorical scruff of the neck. It didn’t do to dwell on what had been. This business with Kincaid was making him morbid. He was Ben Cartwright, and he was damned if he was going to be beaten by some upstart just come to town. What he needed, he decided, was a good, stiff drink and the chance to think things over. He put on his headgear and crossed over the street. Despite the fact that he was wearing his business suit, his best hat and a silk-string tie, he made his way to the Bucket of Blood saloon. Rebuilt in brick after one of the several fires that had devastated the town, the establishment had retained its original name and much of its character. It was still the roughest place this end of town. Ben didn’t care; it was what he was in the mood for. He pushed his way through the swinging half-doors and made his way to the bar.


He ordered whiskey, not his usual smooth rye but a harsh, rough rotgut that scorched its way down. For the price of a dollar, the barman left him the bottle. He didn’t intend to drink much; he poured himself just one more. He had some decisions to come to. Just what was he to do to thwart Kincaid’s obvious intention to destroy all that he had created? He found himself wishing that Adam was there: Adam, his first born, with wits and learning and a cool business head. But Adam was a long way from there, his letters sporadic and not always clear. Ben hoped he was finally curing that itch in his feet. Of his other sons, Hoss had no head for business, preferring to work with his hands on the land, and Joseph – Joe had all the best intentions but a mind like a will-o-the-wisp. He could never settle his thoughts on one thing for long. Ben scowled at himself in the barroom mirror. This wouldn’t do: now he had to start thinking


“Well, if it ain’t the great Mister Ben Cartwright.” The voice came from behind him. “Guess you’ve come ta see how us poorer folk live. From what I hear say, you’ll be coming to join us real’ soon.”


Ben looked in the mirror; over his reflected shoulder he could see the face of a big, ugly man. He turned around slowly. “Were you talking to me?”    


The ugly man smiled an ugly, broken-toothed smile. He could have been a miner, or a logger, perhaps. He was built like a mountain with muscles that bulged beneath the grubby sleeves of his red, woollen shirt and a balding, reddened head. He had several friends seated at various tables and was determined to give them a show. He laughed and his breath gusted out of him, sour with the stench of cheap whisky. “Shore I’m talkinta you! I hear tell it won’t be long now ‘fore you lose all that land an’ that grand house, an’ all them fancy clothes.” He looked Ben up and down with a sneer of drunken contempt. “You ain’t such a big man any more. Reckon you’ll soon be workin’ the graveyard shift alongside the rest o’ us. What d’you have ta say about that, Cartwright?” Bad news, it seemed, travelled faster than fire in a cardboard shanty.


“I think you should keep a civil tongue in your head,” Ben told him evenly.


The mining-type laughed out loud. He looked round at his friends for encouragement – and got it. They were egging him on. “You think you can come waltzing in here with your airs and you graces, all dressed up fer the Governor’s ball?” Ben caught another gust of the strong, whisky breath. “I think I might just take you down a peg or two. I think I might loosen a few of your teeth.” The man was winding himself up for precipitate action.  His big fists balled into rock hard weapons. Ben could see the gleam of sharp knuckles straining his dirt-ingrained skin. 


He realised that he’d made a mistake. He shouldn’t have come here in his smart business clothes; he shouldn’t have come here at all! He took off his hat and laid it on the bar alongside the whisky. If he was about to get into a fight, there was no point in ruining the whole ensemble.


“I think that’s enough.” The voice was familiar: an unthreatening, lightweight drawl. It carried all the authority its owner required. Roy Coffee had been sheriff of Virginia City for more years than anyone cared to remember and had a knack of showing up whenever he was required. He knew the town like the back of his hand; the beat of its heart was his own. A man of deceptive proportions, he stood easily, just inside the batwing doors. There was snow on his shoulders and snow on his hat. The keen grey eyes in his well-weathered face were frosty. “You’ve had your fun,” he said to the miner. “Now let it go. You go sit back down with yore friends an’ finish yore drinkin’.


The miner hesitated, annoyed at having his sport interrupted, unwilling to let his prey go – but he wasn’t willing to argue the point with the local upholder of law and order. Everyone knew that the ageing lawman wore not only a silver star on the front of his coat but a businesslike Colt underneath it. The miner unclenched his sharp edged fists. “Di’n’t mean no harm, sheriff,” he said in a whine. “Was just funnin’ around.”


Roy Coffee looked at him sternly. “Well, I’m tellin’ you the funnin’s over.”


The miner scuttled away looking guilty. Roy stepped further into the room. “Ben.” He nodded acknowledgement to a very old friend. “What you doin’ in here” His eyes took in the bottle and the half-filled glass. “This ain’t the sort o’ place I’d expect ta find you –  an’ you not even wearin’ a gun.” His tone held reproach.


Ben nodded, half in apology. “I needed a place to think.”


“Well, this ain’t it.” Roy beckoned with a tilt of the head. “I got a pot o’ fresh coffee down at the Jail House. Reckon it ought ta be burned black about now. What say you pick up your hat an’ we go share it?”


It was as graceful a rescue as could be expected. Smiling ruefully and shaking his head, Ben went with him into the street. Now it was dark and snowing in earnest. The flakes were still big and all clumped together like bundles of thistledown. Huddled into the depths of his coat, Roy led the way to his office.


The big, cluttered room was lit by only two lamps and warmed by a black-iron stove. Roy’s huge, battle-scarred desk dominated the floor-space, and wooden doors led to the cells at the back. Roy poured two cups of coffee from the old battered pot. Ben sat in the gate-legged chair alongside the desk and told him about Kincaid and the lost business deals and the possible implications for himself and his family. “Cranmere was right when he said I was over extended,” he admitted at last. “My interests have grown too much and too quickly.  I though I had it all under control, but I left myself wide open to this man’s attack. D’you know what Tollerman called him? The White Shark


Roy, installed in the large leather chair behind the desk, nodded. “I’ve heard it said,” he reflected. “When you see the man, you’ll understand why. What d’you figure on doin’ next?”


Ben hunched himself over his coffee. “First thing in the morning, I’m going to see my lawyer.”




Ben spent an uncomfortable night in a hotel bedroom, ate a breakfast he couldn’t digest and presented himself without an appointment at the upstairs offices of Caxton and Son at the undignified hour of nine o’clock in the morning. Caxton, the elder, was a man Ben had trusted for years. He was a little slow on his feet these days, but his wits were still sharp – though more directed to outwitting the fish in the creek than a courtroom opponent. Ben, to his surprise and alarm, found himself ushered in to see the son.


“Father’s gone on a long fishing trip to the Sacramento Valley,” George Caxton, the younger, said with a dazzling white smile. “I’m starting to take over the business – little by little, you understand?”


Ben understood. Caxton, the younger, was entirely different from his father. He was young, for one thing, and handsome in a black haired, square featured sort of a way. Rather too handsome, perhaps, Ben thought. He was certainly full of verve and energy. He sat in the old leather chair behind the carved desk in his father’s sun brightened office and listened intently to everything Ben had to say. He wrote notes on a large pad of paper, the scratch of his pencil the only other sound in the room.


“Well now, Mister Cartwright,” he said, when Ben had finally talked himself dry. “Undoubtedly you have strong grounds to claim breech of contract. If I might ask, how strong are you, financially, to fight a long and protracted case through the courts?”


Ben explained about being overextended, about cattle markets and timber, and the silver mine that was starting to show a profit, the lucrative silk trade with China that was barely off the ground and the coalmines in Pittsburgh that would start paying off just as soon as the coal was sold to turn into coke and gas. 


Caxton listened, turning his pencil around and around in his fingers. “A case of this nature can take several years to resolve,” he said finally. “By the time it’s worked its way through the courts, you could already be out of business.”


It was a blunt, brutal truth, and Ben didn’t like to hear it. He was more used to dealing with the foxy old man who understood his affairs than he was this damp-eared, new-littered pup. Still, he kept a civil tongue; “What would you advise me to do, Mister Caxton?”


Caxton, the younger, steepled his blunt-ended fingers and gazed at Ben over the apex. “As I see it, Mister Cartwright, Mister Kincaid is using certain loopholes in contractual law to undermine your agreements.  As yet he’s done nothing illegal, but his ethics leave something to be desired.”


“He’s stolen my contracts from under my nose!” Ben barked. “How can that not be illegal?” 


Caxton smiled. “There are ways and means. I suggest Mister Kincaid is obtaining inside information. We need to cut that off at its source. In the meantime, I have some contacts that might be of use. If I move quickly, with your consent, we might just beat him at his own game.”


Ben had to confess that the young man’s enthusiasm was little short of infectious. “What do you want me to do?”


“You’ll have to be prepared to take losses – perhaps to drop your prices to those of Mister Kincaid – but you would get rid of the cows and the timber.”


“Steers,” Ben corrected without thinking. He didn’t much like it. With all that he had on his plate, that loss of return could be critical. “I’ll do what I have to,” he said grimly.


“That’s good,” Caxton smiled encouragement. “Other than that, trim back all unnecessary expenditure without curtailing your operations unduly. Keep everything on an even keel and leave the legal work to me. I’ll be in touch as soon as I have some news.”    


The two men stood and shook hands. Before Ben knew much more about it, he found himself back in the street. Times were certainly changing.




Ben changed his garb for something a good deal less formal: workaday shirt, vest and pants under his overcoat, saddled his horse and rode out to the low-level lumber camp. At that time of year, the higher forests were clogged with six feet of snow. The Ponderosa was beautiful in a gown of virginal white. The trees were stark black in the landscape and the blue and purple hills were cloaked in silvery mist.


The woods were eerily quiet. There was no sharp ring of axe or crash of falling timber to break the enveloping stillness; no men’s voices raised in profanity or shouted encouragement at the teams of mules that laboured in the trace-chains. Only a drift of woodsmoke on the afternoon air gave an indication that the clustered shacks on the hillside were inhabited at all. 


The men saw him coming from a good way away. They clustered together, a dozen or so, all muffled up in coats and scarves with their hands thrust deep in their pockets. They didn’t speak but simply stood waiting, a tight knot of watchful faces beneath the steaming canopy of their combined breath. Ben let his horse pick its own way up the steep, snow-bound trail until it came to a stop of its own accord, a few feet away. He looked from one watchful face to another. “What’s the matter here? Why aren’t you men working?”


Barney Melrose stepped away from the others, marking himself out as their spokesman. Melrose was Ben’s foreman, had been for the last several years. A solid mountain of a man, he was quite big enough to keep the others in line with his fists if he had to – not a practice that Ben might approve of, but there were times when it could be useful. Melrose had a heavy-jowled face stained beefsteak-red by the bitter bite of the cold. “We heard some fella called Kincaid bought out your contracts, Mister Cartwright. Me an’ the fellas reckoned iffen you don’t get ta sell all this timber, then we ‘uns ain’t gonna git paid.” 


Ben turned his head in a slow arc and looked the camp over. Huge numbers of trees had already been felled. The logs were neatly stacked, trimmed and cut to length, ready to be hauled off the hillside as soon as the weather cleared. Across the hillside was the next stand of timber, every third tree marked with a blaze. The horses and mules stood harnessed and ready; a big fire of trimmings burned under the coffeepot. He had no idea how the news of his problems had travelled so far or so fast. He didn’t intend to deny it. He turned his gaze to the men’s waiting faces.


“You’ll get paid,” he promised grimly. “Every last man-jack of you. If the timber sells or not, you’ll get your money, and a bonus to boot. You have my word on it.”


Melrose turned to the others. “You heard what the big man said. Let’s get back to work.”


Ben watched them disperse, then climbed wearily out of the saddle. He figured he’s earned himself a cup of that coffee.




Ben went to look for old Charlie and found him down by the branding corals with four other men, making running repairs to the fencing. Charlie was as old as the bones of the world, and he had forgotten more about cattle and ranching than Ben Cartwright had ever known. Charlie leaned on the fence rail and listened while Ben explained about Kincaid and the problem they had with the cattle.


Charlie, now toothless, sucked his tobacco and worked it with iron-edged jaws. His faded old eyes gazed into the distance. “Feedin’ them extra critters could be a problem, what with the young stock comin’ on. There’s some unclaimed sections and some abandoned homesteads down by the desert. We could drive some o’ the older steers down there. The grazin’s poor and the water shore ain’t good, but it’ll keep ‘em alive fer a bit.”


Ben inclined his head. “Organise it, will you, Charlie? Use as many men as you need.”


Charlie tipped his head forward and scratched at the back of his neck. He screwed up his brown-leather face. “Come spring, you could drive a bunch of ‘em up to the railhead at Reno. They’d be real’ scrawny and they wouldn’t fetch much, but it’d shore be better than nothin’.”


Ben pulled in a breath. “Do it.” He didn’t have any options. “And those you can’t find grass for drive to Virginia City: free beef for the widows and orphans. And take some up to the Indian camp. I’d rather slaughter them now than have them die of starvation.”


Charlie spat tobacco juice and nodded grim faced agreement. “Sure thing, boss.”


Ben kept his back straight as he rode away; wouldn’t do to let the men see the sag of his shoulders.




With Hop Sing, cook, housekeeper and sometime confident gone to winter in San Francisco, and both Joe and Hoss away, the big house was quiet – too quiet – filled with shadows and memories. Ben missed his sons: the sound of their voices and of their laughter, their boisterous arguments and their sometimes-heated discussions. As night closed in, Ben lit the lamps and built up the fire on the hearthstone, but the light and the heat couldn’t drive the deep chill from his bones. He didn’t feel like eating; made do with stale bread and cheese. The rich Havana tobacco he burned in his pipe tasted flat. Too weary to climb the stairs to his bedroom, he dozed all night in the chair.


The morning dawned bright. The sky was a flawless silver turning to blue, the air, crisp, clean and clear. It had snowed again during the hours of darkness; the land was clothed in a pristine veil of white. Ben feasted his eyes on its beauty. Everything he could see, from the forest-clad slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the high, dry pasturelands, currently deep in snow, to the lower woodlands and valleys where the cattle sheltered from the worst of winter’s deprivations, belonged to him and his sons. No one was going to take it away from them. They’d bury him under it first!


He faced the day with a new determination. Having eaten breakfast, he worked doggedly through the ledgers, seeing what financial corners could safely be cut. He didn’t find many; the ranching operation in particular was kept on a very tight rein. He had finished the job and was thinking about making a fresh pot of coffee when he heard a horseman ride into the yard. Opening the door, he found young George Caxton knocking the snow off his boots. He asked him inside. “Can I offer you tea or coffee? Or perhaps something stronger?”


“I’ll take tea, if you have some.”


Ben supposed that he should have known. Caxton took off his hat and followed him into the kitchen. “I have good news for you, Mister Cartwright. I’ve managed to renegotiate the contracts for just over half your beef and your timber. Of course, you’ll have to take a loss on the deal as we discussed yesterday.” He looked at Ben anxiously, his head on one side.


It was worse than Ben had hoped for; better than he had expected. If he could sell off the rest of the lumber, come spring, he could keep his head above water. He put a brave smile on his face; “That is good news, Mister Caxton.”


They drank their tea, and Ben signed some necessary papers, then he went into the yard to see Caxton off. He wasn’t happy, but he could see that, barring further disaster, he could get things moving again and, eventually, stage a recovery. He began to breathe easier. Caxton leaned down out of the saddle, and the two men clasped hands. “I’ll see you again, Mister Cartwright.”


Not too soon, Ben hoped. “Good day, Mister Caxton.”


Caxton had barely ridden out of the yard when a second horseman galloped in from a different direction – a boy Ben Cartwright recognised on a horse several sizes too large. Ben strode over. “Timmy? What is it?” The boy was all but tumbling out of the saddle. Ben helped him down. Even as his boots hit the ground the boy delivered his message. “Mister Cartwright, the mine! You gotta come quick!”


Ben felt a fresh surge of alarm. He planted one big hand on each of the boys shaking shoulders. “Timmy, tell me slowly; what’s happened at the mine?”


Timmy drew a great breath. “There’s been an accident! An explosion! A cave-in! There’s men trapped inside!” The last of his statement was addressed to thin air. Ben had already run to the barn for a horse and his saddle.





The silver workings were on the outskirts of town, high up on the side of the mountain. It took over and hour of hard riding to get there. The alarm bell should have been audible from five miles away. Today, Ben didn’t hear it. He found its silence more ominous than its frantic clanging. A hollow opened up in his belly, a deep well of dread and despair.


The mine was more than a hole in the ground. A dozen or more buildings – offices, workshops, storehouses, a washhouse for the men – clustered about the pithead. An ugly stump of a tower housed the winding gear. At first Ben thought the pit was on fire. A dense cloud of dust hung in the sky like a great pall of smoke. Water wagons were parked close at hand but were not in operation. The entire area was a scene of ordered confusion. Men and horses, wagons and mules were surging in all directions. Men were yelling, shouting orders and inquiries. A crowd of the curious had gathered: dark crows of doom. A group of silent women stood by, dry eyed, watching and waiting to see if their man came back from the gateway to hell. Over all was the thump and the draw of the massive Carlisle steam-pumps pulling the water out of the earth.


Ben tied up his horse and made his way through the press of the men to the pithead. Dust was still rising out of the shaft some two hours after the accident. The cage arrived at the base of the tower with a rattle of chains and a jangle of iron gates. It discharged miners onto the surface. Men staggered past with staring eyes and dirt and blood on their faces. Ben found a face that he recognised and grabbed the man by the arm. “Asia, what happened here?”


Asia MacKay was the mine manager: a droll little man with an odd sense of humour. He wasn’t smiling now. His checkered suit was caked with clotted dirt and his face was filthy. It took him a moment to recognise Ben. “The Lord only knows. Some sort of explosion; brought a great chunk of the roof down.”


Ben could imagine the horror. It was as hot as hell underground. The only light was that of a flickering candle, and the air was so this with the dust that it clogged a man’s lungs. And then the roar of a rock fall and the Stygian darkness and other men’s cries…


“It’ll be a while before you pull any more silver out of that mine,” MacKay was saying, watching him closely. “But at least nobody died.”


Ben closed his eyes and breathed a mighty sigh of relief. “Thank heaven for that!” At least this time there were no bodies to bury, no widows to comfort, no orphans to care for. “What caused the explosion?”


“Don’t rightly know.” MacKay was still stunned by the enormity of the calamity – confused and confounded by the disaster that had just passed him by. It would take him a while to get over it. “Could have been an accident, but I don’t see how. That was the safest part of the mine, and that shift is all experienced men. Thank God you insisted on them Diedeshiemer square sets; they saved our bacon.” 


The implications of that took a time to sink in. Ben felt his face tighten into a scowl. “Are you saying someone deliberately caused an explosion inside the mine?”


Shaking his head, MacKay confessed that he didn’t know.


Ben became aware of another man standing beside him, one more of many who had pushed past his arm. This one was persistent. Roy Coffee read his old friend’s expression. “Ben, don’t you go jumpinta conclusions.”


Ben was a man from a very old school. He knew of only one way to confront an enemy and that was head on; to meet him face to face. “I think it’s time I went to see Nathan Kincaid.” He took a long step towards his horse.


Roy snatched at his sleeve. “Ben, don’t stomp outta here half cocked an’ do somethin’ foolish!”


Ben swung into the saddle. Caught up in his rider’s excitement, the buckskin gelding danced under him. “Don’t worry, Roy, this time I’m wearing a gun.”


As he kicked the horse into a gallop he heard Roy shout after him, “You know dang well that ain’t what I mean!”




Ben tracked Kincaid to the International House Hotel: the grandest hotel in town. As he went inside a man was emerging from the dining room. The man was a stranger, but Ben felt he already knew about him all that he needed to know. He was tall and wide shouldered but thin, as if he had a wasting disease, and he walked with the aid of a silver-topped cane. He was smoking a cheroot in a long silver holder. Ben planted himself in his way, filled out his chest to make himself broader and drew himself up to full height.  “So you’re Nathan Kincaid?”


“And you must be Cartwright.” Kincaid gave him a thin, vulpine smile. Ben saw why he was named The White Shark. His face was pale, and his lips were blue and thickened. His mouth was filled with large, spear-like teeth, many of them broken off so that only the stumps remained. Ben knew they must be incredibly painful. Perhaps it was pain that drove the man. “It’s always a pleasure to confront an adversary directly.”


Ben put all thoughts of sympathy out of his head. This was a man with a keen killer instinct. He became aware of the quiet. At this time of day the hotel lobby was crowded with people, but everyone was silent, still, watchful. Staff, guests, those who had stopped by for lunch, loiterers and casual hangers-on, all had put their lives on hold for a moment; their attention focussed on the drama between the two men.  Not wanting any misunderstanding, Ben moved his hand well away from his gun. “Kincaid, I think you owe me an explanation.”


“An explanation?” Kincaid drew on his cheroot. He had a pure, light accent that came from somewhere far in the east.


“First you buy out my contracts, then there’s an explosion up at the mine. It’s only sheer luck that no-one was killed.”


Kincaid’s cool smile became thinner and colder. “An explosion? How very unfortunate. But it really has nothing to do with me. If you’re making an accusation, you’d better have proof. As for the contracts,” He shrugged one shoulder. “I could say that it’s purely a matter of business, but that wouldn’t strictly be true.”


Ben knew what he meant. He’d met Kincaid’s sort before. Already a rich and successful man, power, wealth and influence might be the prizes, but the pleasure came from destroying another man’s endeavours and watching him quiver inside his skin as he was driven into the dirt. One thing Ben was sure of, it wouldn’t happen to him.


He raised his head and refocused his eyes, looking beyond Kincaid’s lean form at the two men who stood behind him, half concealed in the lavishly curtained doorway of the dining room. Abruptly, everything fell into place. Now he knew how Kincaid knew so much about his business affairs and how to strike at him where it would hurt him the most. He knew Kincaid’s dining companions, knew them very well. Gravely, he nodded a greeting. “Cranmere. Meiser. I can’t say I think much of the company you keep.”


Dolf Meiser, at least, had the grace to look away, embarrassed. Cranmere just smiled around his cigar. “Cartwright.”


“You’re not going to win,” Ben said to Kincaid. “I’m going to fight you every inch of the way. Everything you try to do in this town, I’m going to beat you.”


Kincaid seemed to shrink, to become smaller and meaner as he hunched over his walking stick. He took the cheroot from his mouth as if its flavour was suddenly sour. “We’ll see about that, Cartwright.”  With a long, lame step he went past Ben, through the hotel door and into the cold, sun-bright afternoon.


Ben Cartwright smiled with grim satisfaction. Now combat was truly joined. He felt stronger; fresh blood flowed through his veins. He felt that, now, he had the upper hand.  Soon his sons would be home to help him, and young George Caxton was on his side. If Nathan Kincaid wanted a battle, then by all that was holy, he was going to get one.


Potter’s Bar 2002.