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The cattle rancher removed his dusty cowboy hat and took aim at the prickly pear cactus with an improvised flamethrower.

A fireball engulfed the tall clump of green cactus, burning away the needle-sharp thorns so Bruno Trevino's drought-dwindled herd of 31 cattle could eat a skimpy supper."Whoa! Yip!" he shouted as hungry cattle kicked up dust from the bone-dry earth, their bells clanging as they tore at the smoking, crackling cactus and the sun set on yet another 95-degree day.

The cactus is the only food Trevino's cattle have left because of a deadly drought, the worst in nearly half a century and part of a greater natural disaster stretching all the way north to Kansas.

South of the border, the suffering will be greater. Small farms still prevail over big agribusiness, and the social safety net is much weaker than that in the United States. Many farmers are also struggling from an economic crisis that erupted in December 1994.

Smaller farmers have trouble getting loans to see them through thin times, and frequently the margin between rain and ruin is small. Independent estimates indicate Mexican crop and cattle losses could reach more than $1 billion. The Mexican government has allocated $157 million in drought relief.

Trevino says he is just scraping by.

"There is no water. There is no rain anymore," he said. His lament rose with the dust as his cattle noisily crunched the cactus. "Why is this happening? We don't have an answer."

From the air, large swaths of Mexico's northern countryside look like a gray moonscape of burned-out corn and grain fields. Only the green cactus and mesquite trees provide contrast.

"The drought is the worst since 1953. It is very harsh, very severe," Agriculture Secretary Francisco Labastida Ochoa said at a news conference last week.

The drought began three years ago. This year, Mexico has received an average of only 2 inches of rain, 77 percent below normal. The north has had much less, and many areas have had none.

Ochoa said 98 million acres of grazing land, mostly in northern Mexico, have stopped growing grass, and many cattle have lost 60 to 100 pounds. Some 1.6 million acres of prime farmland have gone idle.

Desperation rises with the mercury.

Four years ago, Trevino had about 100 cattle. Today, the herd is down by two-thirds. Only one bull - needed to keep the herd growing - remains. Trevino sold the rest.

"We have special Masses, and we ask for water in our prayers, but what can we do? We haven't really sown a good crop in four years," he said.

This year, he barely had enough water to irrigate 10 acres of sorghum, harvesting just 1 ton of the grain instead of the usual 3 tons.

Who has water - and who doesn't - is a big topic of conversation for the cattlemen and farmers who live in and around Rancho Piedras, 100 miles south of the Rio Grande in Tamaulipas state, and in other towns dotting the dry landscape.

Mule skinner Felix De La Cruz helps by delivering potsful of water to the small concrete homes, where some of the wooden and barbed-wire fences are decorated with skulls of longhorn cattle.

De La Cruz hollered at the two mules bouncing his wooden hay-wagon over rutted roads. "We all have to help each other," he said.

But some towns have no water at all, and animals that feed off pastureland are being sold. Just outside of Rancho Piedras, a dead cow had keeled over in the sun.

"The goats are eating raw nopal cactus, but the thorns hurt their mouths," said Jose Garcia, a herder whose 200 goats flocked around a parched farm pond but found not a drop.

Emilio Gonzalez Ibarra, 75, has only five goats. He sent them to the Rio Grande River valley with his son's flock.

"There will be water there," said Gonzalez Ibarra, whose house had a single rusty metal drum of water in front of it. "But we don't have any."