In early autumn the Cowboy Artists of America went out together into the New Mexico back country, horseback, the women left behind.

They wore Resistol beaver felt hats and drank ranch coffee and rode out slowly into the world of their paintings: extravagant skies, Spanish rawhide reins, carved silver bits, mountain ranges the color of damp clay, trotting Herefords with their heads ducked low, long shadows over the sage.

They ate ham sandwiches under a big pine tree.

Gordon Snidow, who was about to be paid $20,00 for an oil painting of a ranch hand bathed in late afternoon sun, galloped off after a bobcat.

Fred Fellows, who left his Los Angeles abstracts to paint cowboys in Montana at around $5,000 per picture, roped a few bushes for practice.

They lined up alongside the Big ranch corral to watch the annual local rodeo. They decided, on an informal vote, that the most authentic-looking cowboy was the lean Hispanic in the old black hat.

"See how he's standing?" Snidow asked. "You know he's had years in the saddle. There's just no doubt that if I painted him the viewer would see the same thing I see. He's no drugstore cowboy. This is the guy that goes out and works with the cattle and breaks horses and knows what cowboying is. He knows where the cows are. He knows if the calf's nose is turning bright red, it's not suckling its mother. A good cowboy knows all that."

Snidow was carrying a camera with long lens, and he trained it on the Hispanic cowboy.

Click.

In the evening the artists came back to the bunkhouse, the bare swinging lightbulb, the gradually emptying half gallon of Usher's Green Stripe Scotch. Bill Nebeker, whose bronze cowboy sculptures sell for $3,000 or $4,000 apiece, picked up his 12-string guitar and started to sing.

"Oh, that strawberry roan How many colts has he thrown . . ."

From 23 handsomely appointed studios all over the western states, the Cowboy Artists paint and sculpt the single most vivid landscape in all of American Mythology.

"Holding Up for the Drags," Bill Owen: Cowboys under the great big cornflower sky, horseback, slumped down tried, dust kicking up behind them, cattle milling on the range. Oil. $14,500.

"When the Mail was Time -- 1861," John Hampton: Wells Fargo Co. stagecoach thundering across the desert, mustachioed men waving from inside at a bucksin-fringed cowboy who gallops over the sage. Oil. $8,500.

Their work is western art -- portraits of history, portraits of Indians, portraits of cowboys working the range. Fifteen years ago they worked for Disney, for Hanna-Barbera, for commercial art studios. Most of them could not then make a full-time living at what they do now.

Today they sell as fast as they can work.

The eastern art world may still wave them aside with a few pained adjectives (representationalist, sentimental, nostalgic, shallow) -- no matter. Collectors scramble for their paintings. Their art is carried by museums, displayed in New York gallery windows, bought and sold by quick investors.

Western art has found an audience that is voracious, impulsive, and rich.

"It's gone wild," said John Diffily, director of the Amon Carter Museum, in Fort Worth, Tex., which houses one of the nation's largest collections of western art. "These are wonderfully clear landscapes, and pure air, and lives that look not as complicated as our lives of today -- it's wonderfully attractive."

The swell began around the late 1960s, and theories abound as to why -- some groping for the much-discussed Vanishing West, maybe; or nostalgia in the face of domestic chaos. Or it may have been the formation of the Cowboy Artists of America, the first professional organization for contemporary western artists.

"Everybody says," Joe Beeler drawled, smiling some in the soft New Mexico afternoon," 'Oh, well, ther's nothing for these guys to paint.'" He was wearing a gray Stetson and the corners of his eyes crinkled in the sun. "And there is. You drive down the highway going 80 miles per hour and you don't know what's over that hill."

Beeler is an illustrator, painter, sculptor, and occasional working cowboy, born in Missouri, raised in Oklahoma; part Cherokee Indian. He was a founder of Cowboy Artists of America -- it was Beeler, Colorado painter Charles Dye and Brooklyn born John Hampton (Hampton spent more than 10 years illustrating the Red Ryder comic strip) who first explored the ideas of a western artists' organization while camping in the Sonora Mexico ranch country in 1964.

"The cowboy's probably the only American folk hero there is," Beeler said. He had finished riding for the day and now he sat at a long weathered pine table outside the bunkhouse, his back to the jagged silhouette of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. He face was brown and lined and his grin split it apart. "Most of these working cowboys are dedicated. They're not in it for the money. It's a pride, and a way of life -- they're doing the job and living up to it -- kind of a code, almost. There's a code of the cowboy way of life. You know, being a good horseman, knowing your business, and going about your business quietly, and not boasting, being honest and direct with people . . ."

Beeler works in Sedona, Ariz., in a four-room studio -- one for watercolors, one for oil, one for sculpture, and one for utilities. A while ago he walked into a modern art museum in Toronto and thought for a long time about what he saw. "Great big canvases that were beige with a white border. And it would have some title. And you're supposed to stand there and be awed by it."

Beeler shook his head. "I can't see anything awesome about that," he said, "When an artist produces something that only three or four people can understand."

On the opening night of the Cowboy Artists of American annual exhibition now at the Phoenix Art Museum, 92 works were placed on sale at prices that totaled $756,000. The only persons admitted to the sale that evening were those who had paid $60 apiece for tickets, and they began to gather outside the museum an hour before the doors opened.

The first person in line was a hospital supply company owner from Center Line, Mich., which is south of Detroit; farther back was a savings and loan owner from Dallas, a Toyota dealer from Great Falls, Va., a cardiologist from Lakewood, N.J.

They were given exactly 90 minutes in which to examine every piece of art -- to gaze at the paintings, walk around the sculptures, elbow their way through the hundreds of other people, and fill out, for each purchase they wished to make, on "intent to purchase" slip on which they promised immediately to present a check for half the price.

The slips were placed in closed boxes, to be drawn, sweepstakes-style, at 7 p.m. Anyone failing to claim his purchase (and present a satisfactory check) within 15 minutes would lose the work to the next name drawn from the box. Hot turkey and quiche hors d'oeuvres were served in the next room. The gowns were elegant. The air became frantic. "I prefer a little more realism. The feel of history, you know," said Mifriam Hogan, the wife of a major collector who places the paintings in the hallways of his business office at the Big Chief Roofing Company of Ardmore, Okla.

A contractor from Chicago, asked about the cowboy art's appeal, looked up from the intent-to-purchase slip he was signing. "Greed," he said.

"Roast Rabbit," John Clymer's large oil, sold for $40,000 to Rick Ford, a Phoenix self-storage company owner who also won the draw for Frank McCarthy's $22,500 oil called "Midstream." A large, prespiring man in a blue shirt maneuvered up next to Ford, speaking quickly, his voice low.

The man offered Ford $55,000 for the Clymer.

Ford looked to someone on his right. "Fifty-five," he said. "How about that?"

"Is it sold?" the man in the blue shirt asked anxiously, and he stuck out his hand. Ford shook it. "Sold," he said.

The hours are long you get hot, you get tired, and your nose is plugged up, and your eyes get to burnin', and you've got about a quarter inch of fine powdered dust that settles on your skin from the calves bein' drug to the fire. Unless you're ropin', of course and if you're ropin', well there's just not enough calves in there . . ."

He was a lean clipped New Mexico Cowboy from the Vermajo Park Ranch. His name was Mike Hobbs. He had a soft way of talking, thoughtful, not too fast, and as he talked he drank Coors in the back seat if a big, yellow four wheel drive that was rooting like a boar through the rust-red mud of New Mexico in the rain.

He was supposed to sort of keep the cowboy artists company on their trail ride.

"We calve around January," Hobbs said. "One particular morning we left it was 21 below zero. And you're out there horseback, you've got your saddlebags on your saddle, you've got plastic gloves . . . You got your needle, and what they call umbilical cord -- it's just a wide piece of nylon -- and big long curved needle. And you go out and you ride through your heifers . . ."

Artist Fred Fellows was in the back seat also: "Charlie Russell said it best," Fellows said and opened another can of beer. "He'd know a cowboy in Hell. You know with nothing on but just wings and a harp or something. But he'd know him."

The rain drummed softly on the roof of the four wheel drive. Fellows and Hobbs looked at each other and smiled.

"You seen one cowboy, you seen 'em all," said Fellows.

"You seen one artist, you seen'em all," said Hobbs.

Charles Marion Russell reached the Montana territory in 1880, 60 years after the first American artists began bringing back sketched portraits of the mysterious wild expanse that was the Louisiana Purchase. George Catlin had painted the Indians; Thomas Moran had sent great romantic paintings of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon back to the incredulous East. p

But Russell caught on as on other artist had, cowboying as he worked, painting outlaws and buffalo and the last of the massive cattle drives. He exhibited in New York, in London. His work commanded high prices even during his lifetime -- his last commission, in 1926, was for $30,000 -- and together with Frederic Remington, the illustrator-turned-fine artist who wandered and sketched all over the western states, Charles Russell helped describe, for the next hundred years, the wind-mussed, taciturn, unfenced solo glory that pretends to be the essence of the American character.

Ninety-two years after Russell first wandered into the Montana territory, Henry Kissinger, German-born secretary of state of the United States, said to an Italian journalist, explaining his role in the opening of China and the continuation of the Vietnam War, "I've always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol, since he doesn't shoot. He acts, that's all, by being in the right place at the right time. In short, a Western."

"Bitter Cold," gary Niblett. Bleached winter sky, open chuckwagon, three cowboys huddled in their battered Stetsons around a small campfire, horses' tails whipping in the freezing wind. Oil. $10,500.

Gary Niblett lives in Angel Fire, N.M., in a three-story wood chalet with a view of Wheeler Peak. In the years before people with money began to clamor for his paintings, he worked for the Hanna Barbera animations studios. He drew Kellogg's commercials, and stills for the cartoon "Charlotte's Web," and sets for "The Jetsons." He quit six years ago to paint western pictures full-time, and now, at 36, Niblett completes and sells about 25 paintings and drawings per year -- Navajo Indians, New Mexico landscapes, cowboys working the ranch country around his home.

Easterners buy it. Foreigners buy it. Their Fervor astonishes Niblett sometimes. An Englishman called Niblett from Los Angeles a while ago, desperate for one of his painintgs. "I want a cowboy or an Indian." he kept saying. Niblett asked him to fly to Albuqerque, and sold him a painting of a western prospector.

"I think it's just the congestion they have back there," Niblett mused during the artists' trail ride. They had stopped for lunch, most of them by now were dozing under the pines with their hat brims low over their eyes, and Niblett leaned against a pickup truck in his blue jeans and denim jacket. 'It hasn't changed that much, the lure of the old West. I think they just want to romanticize it a little bit. Just get a little piece of it . . ."

Frank Polk is 71 years old and needs a little help mounting his horse now, which is something of a disgrace, as far as he's concerned. He is a Cowboy Artists sculptor, retired rodeorider (he made his debut in 1918 with a trained burro, at the Prescott Rodeo), Western movie stunt man, radio singing cowboy and dude ranch wrangler. He has a big, bushy-eyebrowed, uneven face, and a lifelong stammer that he jokes about.

"When I was a kid," Polk said in his raspy voice, comfortably horseback beside a small stand of pines, "if a guy wasn't a cowboy, he didn't amount to nothing. I went to wrangling dudes, 'cause you make more money, and have more fun."

Polk has his reins gathered lightly in his right hand and he wore his Cowboy Artists of America spurs. "I figure I'm pretty goddamn fortunate that I don't have to get up a 5 in the morning,' he said. "Don't misunderstand me. I still like the cowboy. But there's no money in the goddamn thing."