Armies of longhorns ply no more the dusty highway that linked the mesquite hills of Texas and the boundless flats of southwestern Kansas. A century after Texas drovers last herded their cattle to Dodge City, a different brand of beef and man has inherited the trail.

The creeping civilization that ended the cattle drives to Dodge in 1885 has transformed the landscape around the historic Western Trail. There are pickups and Winnebagos where first buffalo, then Longhorn cattle once roamed.

In 1985, the Western Trail exists only in history and on a few memorial stones and markers that show the route. The erstwhile mantle of endless grassland is patched now with cultivated wheat, cotton and alfalfa. A skyline of grain elevators and oil rigs breaks the High Plains horizon.

The military outposts erected to protect frontiersmen are gone, converted into the Fort Griffin State Historical Park (electric hookups available for RVs), Oklahoma's Western State Hospital for the mentally ill (formerly Fort Supply) and the Kansas Soldiers Home for retired military men and their families (formerly Fort Dodge).

Retracing the old route this summer, I found man-made lakes where the trail used to pass and a generation of inhabitants who little resemble the fabled characters of the Wild West. Along the trail: the grandson of a famed Red River provisioner sells tires and appliances in a small Texas city; a Vietnamese refugee watches "Gunsmoke" reruns in her Dodge City home; a retired trucker peddles Confederate trinkets near sacred Comanche tribal grounds in Oklahoma. The contrasts with the past are overshadowed, however, by a unifying thread that cuts across time: In this narrow sliver of the American Southwest, people still struggle, sometimes ingeniously, to make a living from the land and the beasts on it.

Dodge City, the notorious cow town once called the "Bibulous Babylon of the Plains," is still flush with beef and beer, but the Wyatt Earps and Bat Mastersons have been replaced by the Oakley Ralphs and Don Barbers. These mild-mannered Dodge Citians, who run the police department and City Hall, respectively, will never die with their boots on. They don't wear boots.

A FLAMING SUN was setting on the low hills and feathery green mesquite trees that line the Clear Fork of the Brazos River near Fort Griffin State Historical Park. The bright colors of the Texas wildflowers and grasses began to fade.

The ruins of the fort formed silhouettes against the sky, overlooking the river bottoms where buffalo hunters and surveyors huddled in the 1870s under the sheltering arms of the Sixth Cavalry. Wild animals began to caucus loudly. Thunder cracked the blackening sky.

It was here in 1874 that John Thomas Lytle, one of the first cattlemen to ride the Western Trail, requested a military escort for protection against the unpredictable Kiowas and Comanches.

Since the close of the Civil War, Texans had rounded up, branded and driven north the wild "beeves" descended from the Spanish conquistadores' stock. These longhorned animals were sold at Kansas railheads and shipped back to the industrializing East or driven on to the new ranches and mining areas of the northern plains and far West.

By the middle of the 1870s, farmers and fences had claimed the drovers' Chisholm Trail from southern Texas to Abilene in central Kansas. The Western Trail to Dodge City replaced it as the principal highway of beef.

One hundred years later an elderly Kansas couple, returning from a winter stay at Padre Island, Tex., unplugged their trailer and stampeded out of the stormy park, their headlights flashing into the tent of a visitor retracing the Western Trail in a rented Ford LTD.

Stampedes were different 100 years ago.

"The slightest disturbance at night may stampede them," one cattleman's account said. "The first symptom of alarm is snorting. Then, if the guards are numerous and alert, so that the cattle cannot easily break away, they will begin 'milling,' i.e., crowding together with their heads toward a common center, their horns clashing, and the whole body in confused rotary motion, which increases, and, unless controlled, ends in a concentrated outbreak and stampede. The most effectual way of quieting the cattle is by the cowboys circling around and around the terrified herd, singing loudly and steadily . . . "

North across the Clear Fork, the trail winds through pecan groves, blue-stem grasslands, golden-ripe wheat fields and straight into the middle of Lake Kemp, a man-eservoir in the heart of W.T. Waggoner country.

W.T. made a fortune in cattle and today his estate, which swal- lows Lake Kemp whole and sits astride the Western Trail, is the largest contiguous parcel of land in the state of Texas, according to his bejeweled granddaughter.

"We pay taxes in six counties," Electra Biggs declared.

Biggs lives in a Spanish-style adobe hacienda on another man- made, soil-reddened lake called Santa Rosa. Biggs, who was educated in the East and jets abroad frequently, doesn't have a clue to how many cattle are grazing on the 500,000 acres she shares with her cousin.

"I don't know," she said. "A lot."

But she does know which side of her Texas toast has the butter. "You might put a plug in there that beef is good for you," she said, relaxing beside an autographed photo of President Reagan in ranch attire. "You hear doctors and everybody else picking on beef. They are trying to kill it . . . It's like a rumor: 'You shouldn't eat beef, you'll get cholesterol, you'll get a heart attack.' Nonsense!"

From the Waggoner ranch, the Western Trail advances into the fertile bottomlands of the Red River. Here, beginning in the late 1870s, the Doan family made a name in western history as merchants to the cowboy. Now, the hotel, saloon, cotton gin and cattle pens of Doan's Crossing are gone and so, mostly, are the Doans.

One of the few surviving family members is Bod Igou, who owns the Igou Tire & Appliance Co. in Vernon just a few miles south of the old family homestead.

Born in grandfather Corwin F. Doan's adobe house, he was just 4 hours old when he acquired his nickname.

"My uncle came in and asked my aunt, 'What is it?' She said, 'It's a man child.' She always called me a man child. My uncle said, 'Oh, it's Bolivar Sockwad, then?' My older sister couldn't pronounce that and she called me Bod. And that was that," said Bod, a lean 74- year-old.

When Corwin Doan and his two uncles came to the river crossing, it was strategically located just across the border from Indian Territory. As such, it was not illegal for the Doans to sell powder and gunshot to the Indians.

They also sold ammunition, tack and food to cattlemen. According to western historian Jimmy M. Skaggs, a cattle drive of 3,000 head with 10 drovers, a trail boss and a cook might spend $100 a month on salted meat, canned vegetables and fruit. With an estimated 4 million to 7 million cattle passing Doan's Store in those years on the two-month journey from southern Texas to Dodge, the Doan family did well for itself.

"But the boom was over when Bod came along. He and his parents moved to a farm near Electra (named for Electra Biggs' aunt) and went broke in the Depression. Other people grew rich on the farmland around Doan's Crossing.

"My granddaddy could have staked all that land but he didn't because he was going to go West," Igou said. "He wanted to go for gold in Arizona, but when he went to tell his wife she said, 'Corwin, this is as far as I go.'

"I SHALL NEVER FORGET the impression left in my mind of that first morning after we crossed Red River into Indian lands," wrote Andy Adams in 1903 in "The Log of a Cowboy." "The country was as primitive as in the first day of its creation . . . There was revealed to us a panorama of green-swarded plain and timber- fringed watercourse, with not a visible evidence that it had ever been invaded by civilized man, save cattlemen with their herds."

In 1985, civilization is well en -- trenched in Oklahoma, as evidenced by the highway sign for Rick's Red River Bar. Mountains, granite piles beckoning drovers and their successors to the heart of old Kiowa and Comanche reservation campgrounds. It was here that Comanche chief Quanah Parker used to demand tribute in beef, "wohaw," from trail bosses who crossed the Indian lands.

Today, the state of Oklahoma accepts cash tributes from tourists who visit Quartz Mountain State Park where a man-made lake and lodge nestle in the irregular red hills.

On the park's fringes, Lonnie Stout read a detective magazine in his trailer, reaxing after a busy weekend selling Confederate curios and flags to travelers. A 52-year-old Arizonan who drove trucks for 30 years until a wreck left him disabled, Stout expressed an appreciation for Oklahoma culture.

"They had this rattlesnake hunt over at Mangum," he said of his previous weekend's adventures. "They blocked off all of the streets and set up all over town. They had a contest for the largest rattlesnake, the longest rattlesnake. Alive. A dead rattlesnake's no good. I guess it's the largest rattlesnake hunt in the country right here in Oklahoma. People come from all over the U.S."

Up at the lake, tourists in shorts were watching soap operas in the lodge lobby, and motorcyclist Mike Geissler was discoursing on the general disarray of the economy -- Oklahoma's and his own.

"I can't find a job," he said. "I was working in the oil fields and making good money, $1,200 to $2,000 a month. But them A-rabs decided to start cutting each other's throat. Oil glut. I joined the Army."

Out of the Army, the 31- year-old resident of nearby Granite is a victim of the declining local oil and gas industry and now he's two months behind on his trailer payments. Looking out on a lake whose water has drawn down, perhaps for the cotton farmers downriver, a disgusted Geissler gave forth, "Ain't that the sorriest-looking lake you ever saw?"

From Quartz Mountain the Western Trail cuts through hills rising precipitously out of a bristling sea of green wheat and passes through the tiny towns of Port and Forty One, named for an old highway. "They used to have a thriving population through here," said Russell Trissell, a farmer whiling away an afternoon in Forty One's only store. "A lot of people can't make a living in it now. You don't see the small farms anymore."

Ten miles to the north, the old beef highway rambles to an intersection with its modern counterpart, Interstate 40, where a sign insists, "Eat at Big Sky Restaurant." The Western Trail promptly plunges into another lake, the Foss Reservoir.

At the campground there, a young man in a red pickup was taking Horace Greeley's dictum to heart. He was going West to seek his fortune.

Dave Mades, a 23-year-old who had just graduated from the University of Kansas, had his whole life in the pickup: camping equipment, enough food for a month, a file cabinet, clothes. He was headed to California to find a job with his architectural engineering degree. He would camp out until he did.

THE NEXT MORNING, Radio Station KECO ("Cowboy Coun Radio in Elk City") crackled with the sad tale of a lonesome waitress who finds love on the airwaves:

She's found a little salvation

On a local station

She's got a radio heart

Heartbreak is no stranger to western Oklahoma. Along the Western Trail north of the Washita River, the iron talismans of the oil industry begin to dot the land, distinguishing the rich from the poor. One family strikes oil, another dirt. Where the undulating grasslands drop away at Gyp Hills near the South Canadian River, Jim Murphy laughed off his bad luck.

"All gyp, no oil," he said of the land he has worked for seven decades.

Beyond Murphy's farm, the trail Wood ard County, where a minor drama was unfolding in the town of Fargo, population 409. Residents were staring, transfixed, as a wrecking ball pummeled the top of one of the town's two grain elevators, the largest buildings for miles around. Dilapidated and dangerous, the structure had been condemned.

A towering crane, operated by some oil-field roughnecks who had been laid off because of the industry slump, chipped steadily away at the elevator, sending large chunks of concrete crashing to the ground next to Al Yoder's old frame house.

Yoder, a leathery man shrink- wrapped in dust, was glad to see it go. "It's the sorriest son of a bitch I ever seen," he said.

Past the crumbling High Plains skyscraper of Fargo, past the old military outpost of Fort Supply: the Nadine Hieronymous George Lazy T Ranch, gateway to Kansas.

"You're a little late in the year to feel the hair stand up on the back of your head," ranch foreman Mitch Woodruff was saying as he stood near the Deep Hole Crossing of the Cimarron River where drovers used to pause before the final push to Dodge. "When the howling starts, that's not coyotes. They're cougars after the migrating deer."

"OH, LORD, we pray Thee, protect us with Thy mighty hand.

"On our long journey Thy Divine Providence has thus far kept us safe. We have survived cloudbursts, hailstorms, floods, strong gales, thirst and parching heat -- as well as raids of horsethieves and attacks by hostile Indians.

"But now, oh, Lord, we face our gravest danger. Dodge City lies just ahead, and we must pass through it. Help us and save us, we beseech Thee. Amen."

Such were the prayers of westbound settlers in 1876, as noted by a Fort Dodge Army surgeon. Dodge City was a Gomorrah of gamblers, prostitutes, thieves and merchants, all attracted to the cash flow generated by the buffalo and Longhorn trade.

The city started in 1872 as a liquor tent, established just outside the perimeter of the military reservation where alcohol sales were prohibited. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived the same year, making Dodge a major shipping point for buffalo hides and bones. A few years later came the Longhorns.

The arrival of the cattle in the mid-1870s, and their departure in 1885, was due to one factor: the Longhorn quarantine imposed by the Kansas legislature. A quarantine line was moved progressively westward to accommodate arriving settlers who complained that Longhorns were infecting their eastern cattle with Texas fever, a sometimes fatal disease car- ried by ticks that rode the Longhorns into Kansas.

When the quarantine reached Dodge City, the editor of the Dodge City Globe lamented in December 1885, "Our ranges have passed into history."

Dodge City's fortunes revived measurably in 1939 when Errol Flynn and Jane Wyman arrived for the world premiere of their film "Dodge City." TV's "Gunsmoke" followed in 1955 and the local Chamber of Commerce didn't miss a beat.

"There's three generations of Dodge City," explained Frederic R. Young, a board member of the Boot Hill Museum. "The first founded Boot Hill, the second wanted to bury the facts, and the third generation dug them up again."

Boot Hill was the high ground at the edge of town where unloved casualties of frontier life were buried with their boots on. Early on, the bodies were dug up and moved so a school could be built. When Wild West romanticism took root after World War II, however, Dodge City re-established Boot Hill as a museum.

More than 400,000 tourists flocked to Dodge in the city's centennial year of 1972. But the community was ambivalent about milking gullible travelers. A celebrated skeleton testifies to that.

The skeleton, that of an unidentified female, was discovered at the edge of town when a prairie fire burned a burial ground there. It was appropriated for use at the Boot Hill Museum, where it was placed in a coffin with a glass top and label indicating that here lay the bones of a lonesome cowboy who met his end in a gunfight.

The skeleton was a big draw, but the museum board decided in the late 1970s that it was time to introduce legitimacy to its collection of artifacts. A carpet was drawn over the glass-topped box and a frontier plow installed on top.

"The skeleton was highly offensive to some people," explained V. James Sherer, executive director of the museum, which has since obtained formal accreditation from the American Association of Museums.

"But some people were disappointed that it's gone," added Young.

Still more important to Dodge than tourism is beef. The city and its neighbors inherited the meatpacking plants of Chicago and Kansas City when the packers discovered in the 1970s that it was economical to move closer to the cattle and the feed-grain fields.

Today, when the wind is right in Dodge, the air is pregnant with the odors of feed yards and slaughterhouses where at least 6,000 cattle are killed daily. It is, Dodge Citians like to say, "the smell of money."

In the sprawling cattle-fattening pens, cowboys like Mike Steininger still find work wrangling cattle with heavy equipment and horses. And it is in the packing plants where much of Dodge City's Mexican American community (comprising 14 percent of the city's 21,000 residents) and Vietnamese (5 percent) earn a living.

Muoi Tran-Kha, whose husband, Lien Hung Kha, works at Hyplains Dressed Beef, said most of the Vietnamese population moved to Dodge after the Excel Corp. built its huge plant in 1980. As willing to do hard work as the Vietnamese are, many nonetheless find the slaughteruse too grueling.

"Come, go, come, go," Tran-Kha said of her transient countrymen. "Some work Excel: too heavy job, they quit. Before was no Excel, no Vietnamese. They moved plant here, lots of Vietnamese come Excel. They come to me, say, 'May I borrow phone, call Mississippi?'

An unruly frontier town 100 years ago, modern Dodge City prospers now as an industrialized agribusiness center. But it is to the dusty cowboy of old that Dodge acknowledges its greatest debt. With his rope and his pony, he opened the frontier.

"You go anywhere in the world," said Mayor Don Barber, "and everybody asks about Matt Dillon or Miss Kitty. Just about everybody knows where Dodge City is."

The end of the trail.