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«Mexican Hat», Michael McGarity

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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 Kerney 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 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 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.

Kerney 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 wondered 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 corners 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.

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