Read Mexican hat Online

Authors: Michael McGarrity

Tags: #Kerney, Kevin (Fictitious character), #Park rangers, #Vendetta

Mexican hat

This book made available by the Internet Archive.

Once again, for Emily Beth and Sean Eli, with

love, and for HH, with my highest regard for

his friendship, support, and wise counsel.

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Some of the historical events, people, and places described in this book are based on fact, while most are pure fiction. My sincere thanks go to Ms. Elizabeth "Betsy" Reed and Ms. Ana Marie Ortiz of the New Mexico Department of Environment for their technical assistance.

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1

A thick cloud broke and rolled toward the distant hogback. Sunlight pierced the narrow canyon, casting long shadows and soft morning colors into the ravine. Pale green cottonwoods, shimmering in a gentle breeze, bordered a dry, rocky streambed. Driving into the sun, Kevin Kemey dropped the visor to block the glare, slowed the truck, and grunted in frustration. He was lost. In front of him juniper and pinon trees climbed steep slopes to a ridgeline that slashed abruptly above the canyon and pointed directly at a serrated peak. From the lay of the land and the piss-poor condition of the forest road, it was unlikely the route would take him to the Slash Z summer pasture.

He stopped and consulted the quadrangle map. Three private

Mexican Hat

ranches straddled Dry Creek Canyon, deep in the foothills of the Gila Wilderness. He'd passed the first two at the wide mouth of the canyon where rangeland and cactus flats spread to the breaks and dipped down to the San Francisco River. Kerney was a good mile beyond where the third ranch should be.

He glanced at the radio and rejected calling the Glenwood ranger station to ask for directions. He might be new to the job and a seasonal employee to boot, but he was capable of getting oriented without any help. He backed the truck down the road to the cutoff, got out, and found a Forest Service sign that had been ripped off a post and tossed in some underbrush. The spur he'd taken was closed to vehicles. That solved the problem. Kerney backed farther down to the fork and rattled over an equally primitive route that traveled away from the hogback.

After a steep rocky climb, the road leveled as he entered a thick stand of old-growth ponderosa pines that peppered the north face of the mountain. Deep shade made it feel like dawn instead of full morning. He topped out at the crest and stopped the truck, letting the engine idle. A saucer-shaped park, sprinkled with oak and pine, stretched for several miles in three directions. Smack in the center a cabin sat in a small grove of pine trees. A windmill and stock tank were nearby. A barbed-wire fence encircled the cabin to keep away the grazing cattle that moved slowly through the tufts of long grass.

Kerney took in the view, his thoughts turning over the ways he could restore the abandoned homestead and revive it into a year-round cattle operation. There was a perfect cove at the far end of the field where a house, horse barn, and feed shed could be sheltered. The old cabin could easily be converted into a repair shop, to be used when winter came and all the things that needed fixing could be attended to when the weather made outside work impossible. The

i c h a e 1 M c G a r r i I y

road to the cabin was in sorry shape and needed to be graded and packed with base course so it could be used year-round. New fences would have to be thrown up to segregate the land into pastures to prevent overgrazing, and a new corral and loading chute were necessary, but all in all, one man could handle it, if he was willing to work sixteen-hour days and forgo time off for a couple of years. With federal grazing rights, he could run several hundred head of cattle and maybe make a small profit, once the operation was up and running.

Kemey shook off the daydream. It was foolish to think that he could ever raise enough cash to buy such prime land, and the owner would be an idiot to sell. He would have to settle for a lot less when the time came to put his money down and get back to the business of ranching. He popped the clutch and drove over the rutted tracks that led to the cabin.

FROM HORSEBACK on the ridge, Phil Cox watched the lime-green Forest Service pickup as it traveled across the field, bouncing in the deep furrows of the ranch road. The driver slowed several times to keep from spooking the cattle that wandered into his path. That was enough to tell Phil that Charlie Perry wasn't driving. Whenever possible, Charlie used his horn with perverse pleasure to run a few pounds off Phil's beef. Charlie believed cattle grazing was destroying the national forest. He wanted the Gila pristine and pure from boundary to boundary; no cattle, no private land, and no ranchers to mess up the wilderness. Phil didn't recognize the man who parked next to his horse trailer and limped to the cabin fence. After a dozen or so steps his gait smoothed out a bit. Phil hollered, got the ranger's attention, and nudged his horse down the trail, leading a saddled gelding. He won-

Mexican Hat

dered who in the hell the Glenwood station had sent to meet him. The ranger waved a greeting as Phil approached.

Phil dismounted, hitched the horses to the back of the trailer, and walked to the ranger. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Phil Cox."

"Kevin Kerney," the man replied, grasping Cox's hand. "You're a hell of a way off the beaten path."

Phil nodded. "True enough. The Forest Service would love to buy me out and retire my grazing rights." He judged Kerney to be in his early forties. His features were strong and his skin was weathered, with fine lines at the corner of deep blue eyes. "I won't do it."

"Neither would I," Kerney replied, as he looked around. With no evidence of a holding pen or a loading chute in the shallow valley, there was only one way to get the cattle in and out. "Do you move your stock on the hoof?" he asked.

Phil smiled. Maybe the ranger wasn't a complete idiot. "That's right. I use the Triple H pens down on the flats for loading. It takes a couple of days to herd them out, but it's fenced most of the way, so we don't have to chase a lot of strays."

"About two hundred head?" Kerney guessed. Phil Cox, a slender man with bushy eyebrows and light brown hair, matched Ker-ney's six-one frame, minus about ten pounds. His eyes were slate-gray and he had a dimple in his square chin. He was in his late thirties, but his voice sounded younger.

"Give or take a few, with the new calves," Cox agreed. "I could run more on land higher up, if I had a mind to, but when the Forest Service raised the grazing fees, I cut back. I was expecting Charlie Perry to show up."

"He's supervising a prescribed burn in the Blue Range, so you're stuck with me."

"New to the district?" Cox asked.

12 ■ Michael McGarrity

Kemey nodded. "They sent me down from the Luna station to fill in until Charlie gets back."

"I thought I knew all the Luna rangers."

"I'm temporary help."

Phil nodded to encourage more of an explanation. With the cutbacks in funding, hiring seasonal help was now standard operating procedure for the Forest Service, but commissioned rangers were usually career employees.

Kerney didn't volunteer any additional information. "What can I do for you, Mr. Cox?" he asked instead.

"I'm not sure you can do anything at all," Phil replied. "I found a bear carcass I thought Charlie Perry would like to take a look at."

"Poachers?" Kemey asked,

"Maybe," Phil allowed.

Kemey nodded. He limped to his truck, opened the door, took out a small day pack and a hand-held radio, and returned to where Phil waited. "Let's go take a look."

Phil Cox gestured at the gelding as he swung into the saddle. "We have to ride in. Climb aboard."

Kemey lengthened the stirrup straps, tied down the day pack, and eyed the size of the saddle before swinging himself onto the gelding. "Who's riding with you?" he asked with a slight smile.

Cox smiled back. "PJ, my oldest son. He's thirteen. I've got him posted at the carcass to keep the coyotes away."

Kemey adjusted his rump in the undersized saddle. Riding with a saddle that didn't fit jarred the back and jolted the tailbone. "How far do we have to go?" he asked.

Phil looked a bit sheepish. If Charlie had been sitting on the gelding he never would have known why his tailbone was sore at the end of the ride. Charlie preferred helicopters to horses.

Mexican Hat ■ 13

"Not far," Phil replied.

Kemey nodded. "That's good."

Phil took the lead across the grasslands. There was something familiar about Kerney that he couldn't pin down. He was left with the feeling that he knew the man.

pj cox HAD HIS FATHER'S EYES and the samc dimple on his chin. He cradled a varmint rifle in his arm. Lean and deeply tanned, the boy wore a battered cowboy hat pulled down tight on his head. Phil introduced Kerney, and PJ stuck out his hand. "Glad to meet you, sir," he said politely. "Same here," Kerney replied, shaking PJ's hand. "Thanks for looking after things while your dad went to fetch me."

PJ glanced up at Kemey, pleased with the expression of gratitude. "No problem," he said.

The carcass was twenty feet away. Kerney took a long look at it. "When do you think the bear was killed?" he asked PJ.

"Yesterday," PJ answered promptly. "It hasn't even started to smell bad yet."

Kemey nodded in agreement. "Did you take a close look at it?" "No, sir." PJ glanced at his father. "My dad said to leave it just the way we found it."

"That was good advice," Kerney replied with a smile. He gathered up some twigs and walked an ever-tightening circle around the bear, staking each track and sign that he saw. He could feel Phil and PJ watching him as he worked. Ten feet from the carcass he found the discarded, eviscerated bowels of the animal. Close by were tracks of bear cub prints and the imprint of a boot heel in soft sand. He finished the circle, returned to the horses, got

14 ■ Michael M c G a r liIy

two cameras from the day pack, and started taking pictures. Phil Cox and PJ remained quiet as he shot Polaroid and thirty-five-millimeter photographs of everything he had staked as evidence. Finished with the perimeter search, he walked to the carcass.

The black bear, a female, had been skinned and beheaded, and all four paws had been cut off. Coyotes had been at her, ripping into the soft underbelly, but the animal had not been fully gutted. The ground, swept clean with the branch of a cedar tree to remove footprints, was stained with the juices and blood from the coyote feeding. Kerney took more pictures, gathered some hair samples, and scraped dried blood out of the cavity into a plastic bag before returning to Phil and PJ, who were perched on a boulder. Both stood up when he walked over.

"What do you think?" Phil asked.

"Trophy hunter," Kerney speculated. "Knew what he was doing, from the looks of it. Took out the bladder and bowel before he started skinning. One clean entry hole through the chest from a high-powered rifle. Minimum damage to the pelt. Have you seen anything like this before?"

"Heard about it," Phil replied. "It happens every now and then. A royal elk or a buck deer with a good set of antlers gets taken, or a cougar or a bear like this. Charlie can tell you more about it."

"What would Charlie tell me?" Kerney prodded.

"That some people pay big money to hang a bear skin on their wall," Phil answered.

"Like who?"

"Nobody I know," Phil replied shortly. "There isn't a rancher in the county who would kill a bear that's mothering cubs unless it was marauding."

"You saw the cubs?"

Mexican Hat ■ 15

Phil shook his head. "Just the tracks. That's my boot print you took a picture of."

"How long have you and PJ been up here?"

"We camped down at the old cabin last night and came up before dawn looking for strays. When we found the bear I called for Charlie on my cellular phone."

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