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Mexican Hat (Kevin Kerney Series #2)

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Overview

"Michael McGarrity is the real deal." —Boston GlobeWith his dazzling debut, Tularosa, Michael McGarrity was hailed "a born storyteller" (Denver Post)—and introduced readers to a memorable new hero, ex-Santa Fe chief of detectives Kevin Kerney. Now, featuring his vivid feel for the southwest, McGarrity's second gripping novel hurls Kerney onto the toughest case of his life.Taking a job as a seasonal forest ranger in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, Kevin Kerney is looking forward to a quiet summer high in the mountains. But the murder of a Mexican

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Mexican Hat: A Kevin Kerney Novel (Kevin Kerney Novels)

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Overview

"Michael McGarrity is the real deal." —Boston GlobeWith his dazzling debut, Tularosa, Michael McGarrity was hailed "a born storyteller" (Denver Post)—and introduced readers to a memorable new hero, ex-Santa Fe chief of detectives Kevin Kerney. Now, featuring his vivid feel for the southwest, McGarrity's second gripping novel hurls Kerney onto the toughest case of his life.Taking a job as a seasonal forest ranger in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, Kevin Kerney is looking forward to a quiet summer high in the mountains. But the murder of a Mexican tourist, and the discovery of a disoriented old man in the wild, thrust Kerney into an investigation that will carry him back in time to a sixty-year-old feud between two land-rich brothers, Edgar and Eugene Cox.Enlisting young state game and fish officer Jim Stiles to help solve the crimes, Kerney slowly uncovers evidence connecting the ruthless Cox feud with another suspicious death—and the radical actions of New Mexico's present-day county militia. But new assistant district attorney Karen Cox—Edgar's alluring daughter—is torn between hiding her father's long-buried secret and helping Kerney find the truth. Now someone wants Kerney dead—and the deeper he investigates, the more he may be digging his own grave...

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Editorial Reviews

Dick Adler - Chicago Tribune
“Exciting ... McGarrity blew critical and commercial socks off ... with Tularosa ... now he goes for the boots.”
Elizabeth Stanley - Albuquerque Journal
“Mexican Hat has it all — cattle ranchers, the U.S. Forest Service, militia groups, poachers, land-grabbing murderers, Game and Fish Department investigators and locals who just want to be left alone.”
Tony Hillerman
“An ex-cop, McGarrity knows what he's writing about — and how to write it.”
Chicago Tribune
Exciting ... McGarrity blew critical and commercial socks off ... with Tularosa ... now he goes for the boots.— Dick Adler
Albuquerque Journal
Mexican Hat has it all — cattle ranchers, the U.S. Forest Service, militia groups, poachers, land-grabbing murderers, Game and Fish Department investigators and locals who just want to be left alone.— Elizabeth Stanley
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
McGarrity delivers on the promise of his accomplished debut in Tularosa (1996) with his second Kevin Kerney novel. A large cast of tough, believable characters brings life to a complex, action-filled plot that combines animal poaching, smuggling and the activities of present-day anti-environmentalists in the West with cattle theft and land-grabbing during the Depression. Kevin is working temporarily for the Forest Service in western New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. While tracing a missing tagged cougar with Fish and Game Department officer Jim Stiles, Kevin discovers a dying elderly Mexican tourist, Jose Padilla, and Jose's murdered grandson, Hector. The sheriff and Assistant DA Karen Cox ask Kevin to investigate. The physical attraction between Kevin and Karen is cooled by their discovery of an old relationship between the Padillas and Karen's father, Edgar, and his twin, her uncle Eugene, who have been feuding for 60 years. The plot intensifies: Jim is ambushed, Kevin's trailer is bombed, they jeopardize an FBI undercover operation while seeking an elusive wildlife smuggler. Luck and good police work, however, lead them to the links among the murders, missing animals and the Coxes. Although McGarrity sets up some eyebrow-raising coincidences (as a teenager, Kevin beat Karen's cousin in a rodeo competition), he ingeniously orchestrates character, place, action, history and relationships into another outstanding novel.
Library Journal
Kevin Kerney, a disabled policeman working as a forest ranger, discovers a poaching incident in the Gilla Wilderness of New Mexico. He than discovers is stranded tourist, Dr. Jose Padilla, who has returned to Catron County after 60 years to solve the mystery surrounding his father's murder. Tragically, Kerney next finds Padilla's grandson, Hector, murdereda case of history repeating itself. Karen Cox, a sexy assistant district attorney, appoints Kerney as special investigator. Kerney, who made his debut in Tularosa (Norton, 1996), successfully solves another series of crimes in this entertaining thriller. Like Tony Hillerman's Southwestern mysteries, this novel features authentic detail and realistic description. The dialog has an easy, natural flow. The characters may not have great depth, but this is an exciting, well-crafted story with a likable, sympathetic hero, appealing heroine and secondary characters, and appropriately vile villains. Recommended for all suspense collections.
— Jacqueline Seewald, Red Bank Regional High School, Little Silver, N.J.
Elizabeth Stanley
MEXICAN HAT has it all-cattle ranchers, U.S. Forest Service, militia groups, poachers, land-grabbing murderers, Game and Fish Department investigators and locals who just want to be left alone.
— Elizabeth Stanley,Albuquerque Journal
Dick Adler
Exciting…McGarrity blew critical and commercial socks off last year with Tularosa…now he goes for the boots.
— Dick Adler,Chicago Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
Retired Santa Fe cop Kevin Kerney (Tularosa, 1996) is working a temporary job as a Forest Service ranger when he looks inside a cave and finds a dazed old man whose ramblings lead him to the old man's grandson, evidently shot to death by a cougar poacher. But the news that Dr. José Padilla and his grandson Hector had called on ranching patriarch Edgar Cox earlier that day and left a letter Edgar doesn't want to discuss raises the stakes — as does the shooting of Kerney's old Police Academy student, Game and Fish warden Jim Stiles, left for dead when he goes out on his own to follow up a tip too good to be true. Suddenly Kerney's stuck in the middle of a gaggle of feuding Coxes: Edgar's paralyzed brother Eugene, Eugene's rancher son Phil, Edgar's daughter Karen —all warily circling the bones of José Padilla's father Luis, dead these 50 years. Even worse, Kerney's surrounded by dueling lawmen: the boss who deputizes him to the Catron County D.A.'s office, the big boss who wants him off the case, the dopey county sheriff whose press release got Jim Stiles shot, and Karen Cox, who just happens to be Catron County's newest prosecutor. It's a combination that might make his Forest Service job even more temporary than he thought — if a corps of demented militiamen or those poachers (even if they didn't kill Hector Padilla, they're still out there, armed and dangerous) don't retire him first.

A bulging taco of a novel, overstuffed with villains, old secrets, crooked cops, and bang bang bang — but still written with a chemistry and majesty that'll make it irresistible to Tony Hillerman fans.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393333985
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/19/2009
  • Series: Kevin Kerney Series , #2
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 189,606
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael McGarrity

Michael McGarrity, author of the acclaimed, best-selling crime novels featuring Kevin Kerney, is an ex-psychotherapist and former deputy sheriff. Nominated for both the Anthony and Spur Awards, he lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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 piñon 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-growthponderosa 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. 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 Kerney'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.

Kerney 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?" Kerney asked.

"Maybe," Phil allowed.

Kerney 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."

Kerney 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."

Kerney 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.

"Not far," Phil replied.

Kerney 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 same 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 Kerney, 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."

Kerney 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 evertightening 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 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 highpowered 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 bearskin 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?"

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."

"Have you lost any stock?"

"Not that I know of," Phil replied. "I wouldn't shoot the damn bear and call the Forest Service to come and fetch it, if that's what you're getting at. That would be pretty stupid."

"That would be stupid," Kerney agreed. "Have you seen anyone in the area?"

Phil answered with a tight shake of his head.

"Did you hear any shooting?"

"No."

"Did you pass anyone on the road when you came in?"

"No." Phil stiffened and his eyes narrowed. "I already told you I didn't shoot the bear."

"I'm not accusing you, Mr. Cox," Kerney replied.

"It sounds that way to me."

"Maybe we should back up and start this conversation over again," Kerney proposed.

Phil gave Kerney a slight shrug of his shoulders. "Hell, I'm sorry I sound so gruff. It's not you. I guess I've got a knee-jerk reaction to anything that smacks of criticism. Nowadays it seems like us ranchers get blamed for everything that goes wrong in the national forest. At least you're not giving me a Charlie Perry lecture about how my cattle are destroying the forest."

"Is Charlie a hard-core environmentalist?" Kerney asked.

"And then some. He's one of those back-east, urban conservationists. A big-city fellah who wants to save us from ourselves. I take it you haven't met him."

"I haven't had the pleasure."

"Well, you're in for a treat," Phil said sourly.

Kerney nodded vaguely, his eyes studying the mesa. From what he could see, the tabletop mesa fell off sharply on all sides. It was a rock-strewn piece of ground, no more than half a mile long and a quarter mile wide, with wide beaches of shale broken by clearings of grass, wildflowers, and clumps of piñon and cedar trees.

"Is the trail the only way in?" he asked.

"Unless you're a mountain goat," Phil answered.

Kerney smiled in agreement, took the hand-held radio from his pack, made contact with the Glenwood office, and gave a brief report. He was told to stand by until relieved.

"Charlie's on his way," Phil predicted.

"You think so?"

"Bet on it."

"While we're waiting for Charlie, would you and PJ like to lend a hand and help me look for the cubs?"

Phil found himself liking the ranger's manner. "Might as well," he replied with a smile.

They searched the mesa in sectors. Phil and PJ were good trackers. The boy found recent claw marks on a piñon tree near a cow path, and Phil found fresh bear scat by a rotten log. They fanned out, working between the trees, and Kerney discovered a shooter's nest behind a cedar tree. In the spongy, needle-covered soil a small blind had been constructed of branches and dirt, just large enough to conceal a prone rifleman. There were tracks of a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in a sandy hollow off to one side.

PJ called out in an excited voice just as Kerney finished photographing the tire tracks. Kerney jogged to catch up with the boy and his father, who stood looking down into a rock crevice. A bear cub, huddled behind the dead body of a sibling, whimpered as PJ bent over with his hands on his knees for a closer look.

Phil turned to Kerney and said something that was lost in the sound of an arriving helicopter.

"What did you say?" Kerney shouted.

"I said it's a damn shame," Phil Cox shouted, as they walked to where the chopper landed.

The pilot shut down the engine as a man disembarked and ran, head lowered, through the dust cloud kicked up by the rotor wash. He nodded at Phil Cox and turned his attention immediately to Kerney.

"You're Kerney," he snapped. He was a man in his early thirties, with a serious face and sharp brown eyes. Sand-colored hair flapped over his forehead. He wore a yellow firefighter's jumpsuit and hiking boots.

"That's right," Kerney replied.

"Charlie Perry," he said, brushing his hair back into place. A strand fluttered back down his forehead. "I sure hope you haven't fucked everything up."

The helicopter blades slowed to a dull thudding sound. "That would be embarrassing," Kerney replied.

Charlie's eyes narrowed at the sarcasm. "What have you done so far?" he demanded.

"Staked evidence. Took photographs. Did a field search."

"Show me the carcass," Charlie ordered, as he started walking away from Kerney.

Kerney didn't move. After a few steps Perry turned to face him.

"There are two cubs over where PJ is standing," Kerney said, motioning toward the boy. "One is dead. The other one looks sickly."

Charlie walked back to Kerney and gave him a sour look. "Why didn't you call it in, for chrissake?" he demanded. "I would have brought my wildlife manager with me."

"We just found those cubs," Phil interjected. "Get off your high horse, Charlie."

Charlie gave Phil a tight smile and looked at Kerney. "Wait here," he ordered, as he turned on his heel and went to the chopper.

As he talked to the pilot, Phil nodded his head in Charlie's direction. "Now, isn't he a piece of work?"

"I like his warmth," Kerney replied.

Phil chuckled. "He sure puts a man at ease, doesn't he?"

Charlie returned carrying a canvas duffel bag. "I'm sending the chopper back for my wildlife manager after you've shown me what you've done," he said to Kerney. "The pilot will drop you off at your vehicle. I'll take it from here."

Kerney gave Perry a tour, while Charlie fired questions at him, each one more terse than the last, his tone peevish. When Charlie finished grilling him, Kerney turned over the Polaroids, exposed film, and evidence and stepped back to take another look at the man. Perry had close-set eyes and a pinched nose. His fingers were long and nervous. Almost skinny, Perry stood just under six feet tall. His shoulders sloped a bit.

Charlie flipped through the Polaroids without comment and stuck them in the breast pocket of his jumpsuit. He looked up at Kerney without any change in expression. "You can take off. Get back on patrol."

Dismissed, Kerney nodded wordlessly, gathered up his gear, and headed for the helicopter.

Phil Cox walked along with him. "It seems to me you did a damn good job out there."

"Thanks. This was my first case where the victim was a bear," Kerney admitted.

"What other kind of cases have you had?"

"The two-legged variety," Kerney said as he climbed into the helicopter. "But that was some time ago."

The pilot cranked up the engine. Phil stuck his head through the open door into the cockpit as Kerney strapped on the seat belt. "I didn't mean to sound so pissed off at you." He finished the apology with a shrug of his shoulders.

"You didn't. Thanks for your help. And thank PJ for me."

"I'll do it. Stop by for a visit when you have the time."

"Be glad to," Kerney answered.

Phil waited for Kerney to ask for directions. "I'm over by Old Horse Springs," he finally added, when Kerney remained silent. "Turn off at the Slash Z sign on the highway."

Kerney smiled. "I know where it is."

There was no answer to Kerney's knock at the door of the Triple H ranch house. A station wagon with an Albuquerque car dealer's decal on the tailgate was parked in front of a double garage. He knocked harder and waited. The limbs of an old cottonwood at the back of the house overhung the roof. The home, a contemporary single-story ranch-style, was neat as a pin on the outside. The landscaping, apple trees bordered by a moss rock planting bed filled with flowers, was carefully tended. Against a small hill within hailing distance stood a weathered horse barn with a corral and a loading chute built out of old railroad ties nearby.

Kerney knocked again, got no answer, and gave up. On his way to the truck, he heard a woman's voice calling from the backyard.

"Cody, you get in here right this minute! I mean it, young man!"

He turned the corner of the house in time to see a shirtless, shoeless boy scoot up some steps and fly through the open door of an enclosed screened porch into an old stone house set back against a ridgeline. The screen door slammed closed behind him. It must be the original ranch house, Kerney thought. Square and chunky, it had a big stone chimney at one end, a rock foundation, and old-fashioned casement windows.

Kerney knocked at the screen door. The porch floor was stacked with moving boxes in various stages of being emptied. From inside the house he heard two children, a boy and a girl, arguing over who had been given permission to feed a puppy. The animal, a short-haired mongrel no more than twelve weeks old, answered Kerney's knock with a wag of its tail, pushed the screen door open with its nose, sniffed Kerney's boots, and wandered down the steps into the yard.

"Hello," Kerney called out.

The children's chattering stopped, followed by their rapid arrival at the porch door. They were attractive kids with brown hair, fair skin, and bright, inquisitive faces.

The girl, about eight years old, had long braids that she twisted absentmindedly with her finger. She gave Kerney a shy smile. "Hi," she said.

"Hello. Are your parents home?"

"My father doesn't live here."

"Can I speak to your mother?"

"We're very busy right now," the girl replied.

"I won't take much of her time."

"I'll ask her." The girl retreated into the darkness of the front room.

The boy, about five, dressed in cutoff jeans, stood directly in front of Kerney, squinting up at him. He peeled an orange with his fingers, stuffed a wedge into his mouth, and dropped the rind on the floor.

"What kind of policeman are you?" the boy asked as he inspected Kerney's holstered handgun and the badge pinned on his uniform shirt.

"I'm a ranger with the Forest Service."

The boy swallowed the orange slice. "I'd like to be a policeman when I grow up," he said. "Or a rancher like my grandfather."

Kerney hunkered down to get at eye level with the boy. "Which job do you think you'd like best?"

"Ranching," the boy replied. "You get to ride horses and drive trucks. I like driving the tractor best. My grandfather lets me sit on his lap and steer. That's fun."

"I bet it is."

The boy held out his orange. "Want some?"

Kerney pulled off a portion and thanked the boy.

A woman wearing shorts and a peach-colored sleeveless jersey stepped through a side door that led from the kitchen to the porch. She glanced at Kerney, who rose to greet her, and paused to look into some open boxes. "That's where my saucepan is," she said to herself, taking it out of the carton. "Cody, pick up that orange peel and go help your sister. I see Cody has been feeding you," she said to Kerney as she approached.

"He gave me a piece of his orange," Kerney answered.

Cody gathered up his litter, stuffed it into a pocket, and refused to budge. He wrapped his arm around his mother's leg as soon as she moved into striking range. Her hand dropped gently to his bare shoulder. "Your fingers are sticky," she said.

Cody smiled up at her.

"My parents are in Silver City for the day," the woman said. "Is there something I can do for you?" She didn't wait for an answer. "It's not a forest fire, I hope. That damn helicopter flew over twice this morning."

Kerney shook his head. "No." With creamy skin, cobalt-blue eyes, and black hair that spilled against her shoulders, the woman was very good-looking. The bones of her face, fine and delicate, were set off by a strong mouth that hinted at toughness. Late thirties, Kerney guessed. He looked down at the boy, who still had his arm firmly wrapped around his mother's thigh. Slightly above average height, the lady had long, well-formed legs.

"Somebody killed a black bear on the mesa," Kerney explained. "I'm looking into it. Have you seen any unfamiliar vehicles go by recently? Or any strangers?"

"Why do people do that?" she demanded, stomping her foot. "That makes me so mad." She shook her head in disgust. "Just a minute." She pried Cody's arm from her leg. "Go," she ordered, in an even tone of voice.

Cody didn't move.

"Right now, young man," she added, with the hint of a threat in her voice.

Cody groaned, gave her a dirty look, and shuffled off to the kitchen.

"I've been so busy moving in, I haven't noticed anything except this mess," she answered, gesturing at the boxes. "Besides, that damn house my parents built blocks my view of the road. I swear I'm going to tear it down after they die. I just hate it. If they want to live in a house like that, they should move to Albuquerque."

"It looks well cared for," Kerney noted, trying to remain neutral.

"My father prides himself on keeping things in perfect order. But the house belongs in a subdivision, as far as I'm concerned."

"It does seem a bit out of place." Kerney took out a business card and wrote his name on the back. "Could you have your father call me?" he asked, handing her the card.

The woman studied the card. "Kevin Kerney," she said, looking over his shoulder. "Bubba, get over here!"

Kerney turned. The puppy was busily digging up a flower bed. It took one short leap, then wheeled and trotted off toward the house the woman hated.

"Cody. Elizabeth. Go get Bubba before he destroys all of Grandmother's flowers."

The children tumbled down the porch steps and started chasing Bubba.

"I named him Bubba because he's so damn stupid," the woman explained.

She looked at the card again, then back at Kerney and caught him staring at her legs. Her eyes measured him directly. He was tall, with square shoulders, brown hair with a hint of gray at the sideburns, and calm blue eyes that looked back at her without flinching. His features, angular and strong, were offset by a mouth that seemed on the verge of a smile.

"I'll give Dad your card."

"Thank you," Kerney said, smiling in earnest now.

She watched him walk down the flagstone path with a limp that threw him slightly off-center. She switched her attention to her children, who had chased Bubba back into the yard and were trying to tackle the puppy as he barked and ran between their legs. She smiled as the chase turned into a game. She tapped the business card against the back of her hand and looked at it once more. Kevin Kerney. She liked the name.

She stuck the card in the frame of the screen door where she wouldn't forget it and went inside. There was an incredible amount of unpacking still left to do.

Stops at the last ranch in the canyon and at the bar, store, and two restaurants in Glenwood yielded no information on possible suspects. Kerney drove the short distance down the highway to the district ranger station, checked in with Yolanda, the secretary, found an empty desk in a back office, and started writing his report. He was almost finished when Charlie Perry came in and stood over the desk, looking down at him. Kerney glanced up, said nothing, and returned to his writing. The expression on Perry's face was enough to tell him that Charlie was steamed.

"I don't recall giving you permission to continue the investigation," Charlie said sharply.

"You didn't," Kerney allowed.

"That's right. I understand you have some law enforcement experience. I relieved you on the mesa and sent you back on patrol. You should know what that means."

"I do."

"Are you always so fucking insubordinate?"

"Not always."

Charlie scowled. Kerney locked his gaze on Perry's face and settled back in his chair to wait the man out. Charlie blinked first.

"Okay," Charlie finally said, "you're new and you're seasonal, but this isn't the Luna office. I handle all the investigations in the district."

"I understand from Phil Cox that you're good at it," Kerney replied.

"That's nice to hear, but it's not the point," Charlie shot back. "Poaching and illegal trophy hunting are a way of life for most of the people in this district. It's part of their culture. They do it to feed themselves, to make money, or just for sport. There are twenty-five hundred people spread out over almost seven thousand square miles in Catron County. A hell of a lot of them are poor as church mice, and they know the forest better than any ranger. Catching them isn't easy.

"You're wasting your time canvassing. You got two kinds of people who live here -- the minority who want poaching stopped, but who aren't going to snitch on their neighbors, and all the rest, who see it as a birthright. Folks poach depending on how hungry they get, how broke they are, or how bullheaded they feel. You can't approach it like a criminal investigation. It doesn't work that way. And the locals aren't going to talk to some newcomer they don't know or trust."

Charlie was still scolding. Kerney didn't want to make it worse. "I understand," he said.

"Good. I'll be at the Blue Range burn for the rest of the day. Finish your patrol shift and report back to the Luna office in the morning. Leave your report with Yolanda. I'll read it later."

Kerney tapped his paperwork with the tip of the ballpoint pen. "Do you have any poaching files I can look at?" he asked. "I'd like to learn more about it."

"You don't have the time."

"I'll do it after work," Kerney countered.

Charlie considered Kerney. He hoped to God he was never in the man's predicament. He knew Kerney was a medically retired cop from Santa Fe hired on an emergency basis by Samuel Aldrich in the Albuquerque Office to fill in for a permanent employee on extended sick leave. The rest Charlie could see for himself: a hobbled-up, middle-aged man in a temporary job that would end no matter how hard he worked or how much he tried to please -- not that placating people seemed to be much of a concern to Kerney. There were simply no permanent staff vacancies, with all the budget cuts.

"Catching poachers isn't your job," Charlie said. "I thought I made that clear."

"You did." Kerney leaned back in the chair and smiled at Charlie. "Explain something else to me."

"What is it?"

"Why are you pulling my chain? I don't think asking a few questions has damaged the investigation."

"That's your point of view," Charlie replied bluntly.

"Is there more to this case than meets the eye?"

Charlie exhaled loudly through his nose and shook his head. "You don't get it, do you? It's not your case. It's not your business. End of discussion."

"Whatever you say."

Charlie left, and in a few minutes Kerney heard the helicopter lift off to take Perry back to his fire. As he paper-clipped the report together, Kerney wondered why Charlie had stonewalled him about the case. It made no sense, and dismissing Perry as an arrogant, hard-nosed son of a bitch wasn't a completely satisfying explanation.

Kerney walked down the hall and gave his report to Yolanda for typing. She promptly dumped it on the top of an overflowing tray. A heavyset, slow-moving woman with expressionless eyes, she held Kerney back from leaving.

"Charlie said for you to work a double shift," she informed him.

There was a bite to the announcement. Charlie had obviously made his feelings about Kerney known to Yolanda.

"Did he really? What does he want me to do?"

"Campground patrol." She pulled open the desk drawer and handed him two keys on a chain. "For gasoline and the office," she explained. "Just leave your paperwork on Charlie's desk."

"Anything else?"

Yolanda shook her head and turned back to the typewriter.

It looked like the dead black bear was going to be the high point of his day.

The district office was dark and locked when Kerney returned from his double shift. He sat in Charlie's office reading closed poaching cases he'd found in the bottom desk drawer. It was meager stuff -- mostly small-fry poachers who had been snitched off, caught taking game out of season, or found spotlighting prey at night. A few trophy hunters had been busted while transporting carcasses out of the forest.

Charlie's open cases were stuffed in a file cabinet and consisted of a mixture of poaching and trophy kills, with no solid leads, witnesses, or hard evidence. All of Charlie's attention seemed focused on game-taking within the Glenwood District. Kerney wondered about similar activity in other areas. He scanned through a stack of game-kill bulletins from other agencies. One bighorn sheep had recently been taken on state land by a poacher using an ATV, and several exotic ibex from the herd in the Florida Mountains east of Deming had been harvested e

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter One

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 piñon 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. 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 Kerney'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.

Kerney 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?" Kerney asked.

"Maybe," Phil allowed.

Kerney 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."

Kerney 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."

Kerney 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.

"Not far," Phil replied.

Kerney 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 same 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 Kerney, 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."

Kerney 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 evertightening 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 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 highpowered 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 bearskin 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?"

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."

"Have you lost any stock?"

"Not that I know of," Phil replied. "I wouldn't shoot the damn bear and call the Forest Service to come and fetch it, if that's what you're getting at. That would be pretty stupid."

"That would be stupid," Kerney agreed. "Have you seen anyone in the area?"

Phil answered with a tight shake of his head.

"Did you hear any shooting?"

"No."

"Did you pass anyone on the road when you came in?"

"No." Phil stiffened and his eyes narrowed. "I already told you I didn't shoot the bear."

"I'm not accusing you, Mr. Cox," Kerney replied.

"It sounds that way to me."

"Maybe we should back up and start this conversation over again," Kerney proposed.

Phil gave Kerney a slight shrug of his shoulders. "Hell, I'm sorry I sound so gruff. It's not you. I guess I've got a knee-jerk reaction to anything that smacks of criticism. Nowadays it seems like us ranchers get blamed for everything that goes wrong in the national forest. At least you're not giving me a Charlie Perry lecture about how my cattle are destroying the forest."

"Is Charlie a hard-core environmentalist?" Kerney asked.

"And then some. He's one of those back-east, urban conservationists. A big-city fellah who wants to save us from ourselves. I take it you haven't met him."

"I haven't had the pleasure."

"Well, you're in for a treat," Phil said sourly.

Kerney nodded vaguely, his eyes studying the mesa. From what he could see, the tabletop mesa fell off sharply on all sides. It was a rock-strewn piece of ground, no more than half a mile long and a quarter mile wide, with wide beaches of shale broken by clearings of grass, wildflowers, and clumps of piñon and cedar trees.

"Is the trail the only way in?" he asked.

"Unless you're a mountain goat," Phil answered.

Kerney smiled in agreement, took the hand-held radio from his pack, made contact with the Glenwood office, and gave a brief report. He was told to stand by until relieved.

"Charlie's on his way," Phil predicted.

"You think so?"

"Bet on it."

"While we're waiting for Charlie, would you and PJ like to lend a hand and help me look for the cubs?"

Phil found himself liking the ranger's manner. "Might as well," he replied with a smile.

They searched the mesa in sectors. Phil and PJ were good trackers. The boy found recent claw marks on a piñon tree near a cow path, and Phil found fresh bear scat by a rotten log. They fanned out, working between the trees, and Kerney discovered a shooter's nest behind a cedar tree. In the spongy, needle-covered soil a small blind had been constructed of branches and dirt, just large enough to conceal a prone rifleman. There were tracks of a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in a sandy hollow off to one side.

PJ called out in an excited voice just as Kerney finished photographing the tire tracks. Kerney jogged to catch up with the boy and his father, who stood looking down into a rock crevice. A bear cub, huddled behind the dead body of a sibling, whimpered as PJ bent over with his hands on his knees for a closer look.

Phil turned to Kerney and said something that was lost in the sound of an arriving helicopter.

"What did you say?" Kerney shouted.

"I said it's a damn shame," Phil Cox shouted, as they walked to where the chopper landed.

The pilot shut down the engine as a man disembarked and ran, head lowered, through the dust cloud kicked up by the rotor wash. He nodded at Phil Cox and turned his attention immediately to Kerney.

"You're Kerney," he snapped. He was a man in his early thirties, with a serious face and sharp brown eyes. Sand-colored hair flapped over his forehead. He wore a yellow firefighter's jumpsuit and hiking boots.

"That's right," Kerney replied.

"Charlie Perry," he said, brushing his hair back into place. A strand fluttered back down his forehead. "I sure hope you haven't fucked everything up."

The helicopter blades slowed to a dull thudding sound. "That would be embarrassing," Kerney replied.

Charlie's eyes narrowed at the sarcasm. "What have you done so far?" he demanded.

"Staked evidence. Took photographs. Did a field search."

"Show me the carcass," Charlie ordered, as he started walking away from Kerney.

Kerney didn't move. After a few steps Perry turned to face him.

"There are two cubs over where PJ is standing," Kerney said, motioning toward the boy. "One is dead. The other one looks sickly."

Charlie walked back to Kerney and gave him a sour look. "Why didn't you call it in, for chrissake?" he demanded. "I would have brought my wildlife manager with me."

"We just found those cubs," Phil interjected. "Get off your high horse, Charlie."

Charlie gave Phil a tight smile and looked at Kerney. "Wait here," he ordered, as he turned on his heel and went to the chopper.

As he talked to the pilot, Phil nodded his head in Charlie's direction. "Now, isn't he a piece of work?"

"I like his warmth," Kerney replied.

Phil chuckled. "He sure puts a man at ease, doesn't he?"

Charlie returned carrying a canvas duffel bag. "I'm sending the chopper back for my wildlife manager after you've shown me what you've done," he said to Kerney. "The pilot will drop you off at your vehicle. I'll take it from here."

Kerney gave Perry a tour, while Charlie fired questions at him, each one more terse than the last, his tone peevish. When Charlie finished grilling him, Kerney turned over the Polaroids, exposed film, and evidence and stepped back to take another look at the man. Perry had close-set eyes and a pinched nose. His fingers were long and nervous. Almost skinny, Perry stood just under six feet tall. His shoulders sloped a bit.

Charlie flipped through the Polaroids without comment and stuck them in the breast pocket of his jumpsuit. He looked up at Kerney without any change in expression. "You can take off. Get back on patrol."

Dismissed, Kerney nodded wordlessly, gathered up his gear, and headed for the helicopter.

Phil Cox walked along with him. "It seems to me you did a damn good job out there."

"Thanks. This was my first case where the victim was a bear," Kerney admitted.

"What other kind of cases have you had?"

"The two-legged variety," Kerney said as he climbed into the helicopter. "But that was some time ago."

The pilot cranked up the engine. Phil stuck his head through the open door into the cockpit as Kerney strapped on the seat belt. "I didn't mean to sound so pissed off at you." He finished the apology with a shrug of his shoulders.

"You didn't. Thanks for your help. And thank PJ for me."

"I'll do it. Stop by for a visit when you have the time."

"Be glad to," Kerney answered.

Phil waited for Kerney to ask for directions. "I'm over by Old Horse Springs," he finally added, when Kerney remained silent. "Turn off at the Slash Z sign on the highway."

Kerney smiled. "I know where it is."

There was no answer to Kerney's knock at the door of the Triple H ranch house. A station wagon with an Albuquerque car dealer's decal on the tailgate was parked in front of a double garage. He knocked harder and waited. The limbs of an old cottonwood at the back of the house overhung the roof. The home, a contemporary single-story ranch-style, was neat as a pin on the outside. The landscaping, apple trees bordered by a moss rock planting bed filled with flowers, was carefully tended. Against a small hill within hailing distance stood a weathered horse barn with a corral and a loading chute built out of old railroad ties nearby.

Kerney knocked again, got no answer, and gave up. On his way to the truck, he heard a woman's voice calling from the backyard.

"Cody, you get in here right this minute! I mean it, young man!"

He turned the corner of the house in time to see a shirtless, shoeless boy scoot up some steps and fly through the open door of an enclosed screened porch into an old stone house set back against a ridgeline. The screen door slammed closed behind him. It must be the original ranch house, Kerney thought. Square and chunky, it had a big stone chimney at one end, a rock foundation, and old-fashioned casement windows.

Kerney knocked at the screen door. The porch floor was stacked with moving boxes in various stages of being emptied. From inside the house he heard two children, a boy and a girl, arguing over who had been given permission to feed a puppy. The animal, a short-haired mongrel no more than twelve weeks old, answered Kerney's knock with a wag of its tail, pushed the screen door open with its nose, sniffed Kerney's boots, and wandered down the steps into the yard.

"Hello," Kerney called out.

The children's chattering stopped, followed by their rapid arrival at the porch door. They were attractive kids with brown hair, fair skin, and bright, inquisitive faces.

The girl, about eight years old, had long braids that she twisted absentmindedly with her finger. She gave Kerney a shy smile. "Hi," she said.

"Hello. Are your parents home?"

"My father doesn't live here."

"Can I speak to your mother?"

"We're very busy right now," the girl replied.

"I won't take much of her time."

"I'll ask her." The girl retreated into the darkness of the front room.

The boy, about five, dressed in cutoff jeans, stood directly in front of Kerney, squinting up at him. He peeled an orange with his fingers, stuffed a wedge into his mouth, and dropped the rind on the floor.

"What kind of policeman are you?" the boy asked as he inspected Kerney's holstered handgun and the badge pinned on his uniform shirt.

"I'm a ranger with the Forest Service."

The boy swallowed the orange slice. "I'd like to be a policeman when I grow up," he said. "Or a rancher like my grandfather."

Kerney hunkered down to get at eye level with the boy. "Which job do you think you'd like best?"

"Ranching," the boy replied. "You get to ride horses and drive trucks. I like driving the tractor best. My grandfather lets me sit on his lap and steer. That's fun."

"I bet it is."

The boy held out his orange. "Want some?"

Kerney pulled off a portion and thanked the boy.

A woman wearing shorts and a peach-colored sleeveless jersey stepped through a side door that led from the kitchen to the porch. She glanced at Kerney, who rose to greet her, and paused to look into some open boxes. "That's where my saucepan is," she said to herself, taking it out of the carton. "Cody, pick up that orange peel and go help your sister. I see Cody has been feeding you," she said to Kerney as she approached.

"He gave me a piece of his orange," Kerney answered.

Cody gathered up his litter, stuffed it into a pocket, and refused to budge. He wrapped his arm around his mother's leg as soon as she moved into striking range. Her hand dropped gently to his bare shoulder. "Your fingers are sticky," she said.

Cody smiled up at her.

"My parents are in Silver City for the day," the woman said. "Is there something I can do for you?" She didn't wait for an answer. "It's not a forest fire, I hope. That damn helicopter flew over twice this morning."

Kerney shook his head. "No." With creamy skin, cobalt-blue eyes, and black hair that spilled against her shoulders, the woman was very good-looking. The bones of her face, fine and delicate, were set off by a strong mouth that hinted at toughness. Late thirties, Kerney guessed. He looked down at the boy, who still had his arm firmly wrapped around his mother's thigh. Slightly above average height, the lady had long, well-formed legs.

"Somebody killed a black bear on the mesa," Kerney explained. "I'm looking into it. Have you seen any unfamiliar vehicles go by recently? Or any strangers?"

"Why do people do that?" she demanded, stomping her foot. "That makes me so mad." She shook her head in disgust. "Just a minute." She pried Cody's arm from her leg. "Go," she ordered, in an even tone of voice.

Cody didn't move.

"Right now, young man," she added, with the hint of a threat in her voice.

Cody groaned, gave her a dirty look, and shuffled off to the kitchen.

"I've been so busy moving in, I haven't noticed anything except this mess," she answered, gesturing at the boxes. "Besides, that damn house my parents built blocks my view of the road. I swear I'm going to tear it down after they die. I just hate it. If they want to live in a house like that, they should move to Albuquerque."

"It looks well cared for," Kerney noted, trying to remain neutral.

"My father prides himself on keeping things in perfect order. But the house belongs in a subdivision, as far as I'm concerned."

"It does seem a bit out of place." Kerney took out a business card and wrote his name on the back. "Could you have your father call me?" he asked, handing her the card.

The woman studied the card. "Kevin Kerney," she said, looking over his shoulder. "Bubba, get over here!" Kerney turned. The puppy was busily digging up a flower bed. It took one short leap, then wheeled and trotted off toward the house the woman hated.

"Cody. Elizabeth. Go get Bubba before he destroys all of Grandmother's flowers."

The children tumbled down the porch steps and started chasing Bubba.

"I named him Bubba because he's so damn stupid," the woman explained.

She looked at the card again, then back at Kerney and caught him staring at her legs. Her eyes measured him directly. He was tall, with square shoulders, brown hair with a hint of gray at the sideburns, and calm blue eyes that looked back at her without flinching. His features, angular and strong, were offset by a mouth that seemed on the verge of a smile.

"I'll give Dad your card."

"Thank you," Kerney said, smiling in earnest now.

She watched him walk down the flagstone path with a limp that threw him slightly off-center. She switched her attention to her children, who had chased Bubba back into the yard and were trying to tackle the puppy as he barked and ran between their legs. She smiled as the chase turned into a game. She tapped the business card against the back of her hand and looked at it once more. Kevin Kerney. She liked the name.

She stuck the card in the frame of the screen door where she wouldn't forget it and went inside. There was an incredible amount of unpacking still left to do.

Stops at the last ranch in the canyon and at the bar, store, and two restaurants in Glenwood yielded no information on possible suspects. Kerney drove the short distance down the highway to the district ranger station, checked in with Yolanda, the secretary, found an empty desk in a back office, and started writing his report. He was almost finished when Charlie Perry came in and stood over the desk, looking down at him. Kerney glanced up, said nothing, and returned to his writing. The expression on Perry's face was enough to tell him that Charlie was steamed.

"I don't recall giving you permission to continue the investigation," Charlie said sharply.

"You didn't," Kerney allowed.

"That's right. I understand you have some law enforcement experience. I relieved you on the mesa and sent you back on patrol. You should know what that means."

"I do."

"Are you always so fucking insubordinate?"

"Not always."

Charlie scowled. Kerney locked his gaze on Perry's face and settled back in his chair to wait the man out. Charlie blinked first.

"Okay," Charlie finally said, "you're new and you're seasonal, but this isn't the Luna office. I handle all the investigations in the district."

"I understand from Phil Cox that you're good at it," Kerney replied.

"That's nice to hear, but it's not the point," Charlie shot back. "Poaching and illegal trophy hunting are a way of life for most of the people in this district. It's part of their culture. They do it to feed themselves, to make money, or just for sport. There are twenty-five hundred people spread out over almost seven thousand square miles in Catron County. A hell of a lot of them are poor as church mice, and they know the forest better than any ranger. Catching them isn't easy.

"You're wasting your time canvassing. You got two kinds of people who live here -- the minority who want poaching stopped, but who aren't going to snitch on their neighbors, and all the rest, who see it as a birthright. Folks poach depending on how hungry they get, how broke they are, or how bullheaded they feel. You can't approach it like a criminal investigation. It doesn't work that way. And the locals aren't going to talk to some newcomer they don't know or trust."

Charlie was still scolding. Kerney didn't want to make it worse. "I understand," he said.

"Good. I'll be at the Blue Range burn for the rest of the day. Finish your patrol shift and report back to the Luna office in the morning. Leave your report with Yolanda. I'll read it later."

Kerney tapped his paperwork with the tip of the ballpoint pen. "Do you have any poaching files I can look at?" he asked. "I'd like to learn more about it."

"You don't have the time."

"I'll do it after work," Kerney countered.

Charlie considered Kerney. He hoped to God he was never in the man's predicament. He knew Kerney was a medically retired cop from Santa Fe hired on an emergency basis by Samuel Aldrich in the Albuquerque Office to fill in for a permanent employee on extended sick leave. The rest Charlie could see for himself: a hobbled-up, middle-aged man in a temporary job that would end no matter how hard he worked or how much he tried to please -- not that placating people seemed to be much of a concern to Kerney. There were simply no permanent staff vacancies, with all the budget cuts.

"Catching poachers isn't your job," Charlie said. "I thought I made that clear."

"You did." Kerney leaned back in the chair and smiled at Charlie. "Explain something else to me."

"What is it?"

"Why are you pulling my chain? I don't think asking a few questions has damaged the investigation."

"That's your point of view," Charlie replied bluntly.

"Is there more to this case than meets the eye?"

Charlie exhaled loudly through his nose and shook his head. "You don't get it, do you? It's not your case. It's not your business. End of discussion."

"Whatever you say."

Charlie left, and in a few minutes Kerney heard the helicopter lift off to take Perry back to his fire. As he paper-clipped the report together, Kerney wondered why Charlie had stonewalled him about the case. It made no sense, and dismissing Perry as an arrogant, hard-nosed son of a bitch wasn't a completely satisfying explanation.

Kerney walked down the hall and gave his report to Yolanda for typing. She promptly dumped it on the top of an overflowing tray. A heavyset, slow-moving woman with expressionless eyes, she held Kerney back from leaving.

"Charlie said for you to work a double shift," she informed him.

There was a bite to the announcement. Charlie had obviously made his feelings about Kerney known to Yolanda.

"Did he really? What does he want me to do?"

"Campground patrol." She pulled open the desk drawer and handed him two keys on a chain. "For gasoline and the office," she explained. "Just leave your paperwork on Charlie's desk."

"Anything else?"

Yolanda shook her head and turned back to the typewriter.

It looked like the dead black bear was going to be the high point of his day.

The district office was dark and locked when Kerney returned from his double shift. He sat in Charlie's office reading closed poaching cases he'd found in the bottom desk drawer. It was meager stuff -- mostly small-fry poachers who had been snitched off, caught taking game out of season, or found spotlighting prey at night. A few trophy hunters had been busted while transporting carcasses out of the forest.

Charlie's open cases were stuffed in a file cabinet and consisted of a mixture of poaching and trophy kills, with no solid leads, witnesses, or hard evidence. All of Charlie's attention seemed focused on game-taking within the Glenwood District. Kerney wondered about similar activity in other areas. He scanned through a stack of game-kill bulletins from other agencies. One bighorn sheep had recently been taken on state land by a poacher using an ATV, and several exotic ibex from the herd in the Florida Mountains east of Deming had been harvested earlier in the year. An all-terrain vehicle had been seen in the vicinity by a Bureau of Land Management officer.

With the bear kill on the mesa, that would make at least three cases where an ATV had been used to get to the killing ground. It was enough to raise Kerney's interest. He went to the map posted in the front lobby and studied it. Aside from Forest Service land, there were large parcels under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and smaller sections owned by the state. Maybe Charlie Perry had tunnel vision.

Just for the hell of it, Kerney decided to query every state and federal park and conservation agency in the region and ask for information on kills where an ATV was used. He typed fax messages at Yolanda's desk and sent out the inquiries, asking for responses to be sent to him at the Luna office. As he fed the messages through the fax machine, Kerney wondered how ticked off Charlie Perry was going to be when he discovered this most recent act of insubordination.

He got home to Reserve late. His trailer, painted a bright blue by his landlord in a desperate attempt to rent it, sat in an empty field across from the high school. Inside it was hot, stuffy, and smelled like mouse piss. He opened all the windows. Across the field the parking-lot lights at the high school burned pale yellow. He heard the deer mice under the floor -- much more established tenants of the trailer than he was -- scurrying around, upset by his arrival. He would put out some traps on his next day off.

The trailer was a dump, but Kerney didn't mind. A single-wide furnished with a bed, kitchen table, couch, ragtag easy chair, and several lamps, it served his temporary needs. He was banking all his paychecks and living on much less than his retirement pension. Along with the money the Army had paid him for the recovery of the stolen artifacts from White Sands Missile Range, he just might finish the summer with enough cash for a down payment on some land. Not much, and certainly nothing as extensive as the Slash Z summer grazing acreage, but something that could get him started.

Kerney really didn't give a damn what Charlie Perry might do. Four weeks on the job was long enough to convince him that he could never permanently return to patrol work. Not even the beautiful landscapes and startling sunsets in the Gila could ease the boredom of long hours in a vehicle. Maybe a wilderness assignment would be different, but that was a plum job reserved for forestry and wildlife specialists.

It had been years since he'd worn a uniform, and he had never liked them -- not when he had served in the Army nor when he had started out as a street cop. He stripped off the garments, dressed in his sweats, and limbered up the knee for his nightly run, wondering how long it would take Phil Cox to figure out who the hell he was.

As he jogged away from the trailer he thought about the good-looking woman he had talked to at the ranch house. He didn't even know her name. Even the rawest rookie cop on the street knew enough to ID all possible witnesses. It was a dumb blunder, and his appreciation of the lady's splendid legs didn't justify the mistake. He laughed out loud at himself as he picked up the pace.

Copyright © 1997 by Michael McGarrity

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 25, 2009

    Excellent book!

    Very good stories and style of writing.Good characters and contuinity.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 20, 2009

    Excellent read

    Characters are good. Believable. Descriptive, beautiful,scenery. Excellent plot. An old west feel within the new west. And no editing problems!

    Billie Bierer

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2004

    Great Read

    MIcheal McGarrity is a master at this. He's one of my favorite authors. The description is right on the money. I'm from New Mexico and reading his work is living through his characters. Awesome stuff.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2000

    Easy read

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book.The discriptions of the area were outstanding. It reads very easily and I couldn't put it down. Buy it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    great story teller, hard to put down

    great story teller, hard to put down

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    Jaycee

    Is this the T or D place?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2012

    Terriffic series,

    Logical progressions even if the ending is unexpected
    Great ending
    No prolonged unnessary explanations

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2013

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