Cowboy Jack Steinmitz auctions off more cattle than anyone in Kansas -- 350,000 to 400,000 head a year by his count -- and he has a house on Country Club Road to prove it.

Life has been downright good to Cowboy Jack. At 59, if he could take another run at it, he'd take the same life trip -- "Feeding more cattle," he says, "drinking more whiskey and chasing more pretty girls."

His big white car is trimmed in red, with a vinyl top, all the extras and blue Kansas plates that simply say COWBOY, which is what everybody calls jack. He cruises down Wyatt Earp Boulevard, past Boot Hill, the stockyards and a Santa Fe station the way Earp himself used to -- as if he owns the town.

At the Dodge City limits, where the last row of houses ends as abrubtly as a mesa top, Steinmitz reins in his Lincoln on a gravelly knoll above the cattle feed lots.

On a good day you can see 35,000 head down there -- Angus and Hereford and Charolais cross, fattening on corn from nearby farms irrigated by water drawn up by wells sunk far below what was once known as the Great American Desert.

Steinmitz and his town have had a lot of good days lately, cattle prices holding up at $77 a hundred pounds and the ranchers hustling their animals off to the pens as fast as they can. The temperature is in the 90s, right cool after the scorchers earlier this summer, and the sweet Dodge city perfume of cow dung hangs richly in the air.

Some folks out here, Cowboy Jack among them, think this will go on forever like the Great Plains themselves.

Others are a little more skittish, wondering if maybe man hasn't tampered a bit too much with nature in these midlands, wondering if the old lady isn't beginning to rebel as surely as Mount St. Helens blew her top in the Northwest, as surely as the San Andreas Fault rattles Californians as they wait for the big one.

It isn't the drought so much, although that's been painful.

"We're going to have dry years -- that's the history of the Great Plains," says John O'Connor, the federal soil conservationist for southwest Kansas.

"Some people remember and are ready for the tough years; some forget and aren't."

"It's other little signs -- farmers pushing wells down 200 feet on average, sometimes as deep as 900 feet, and occasionally still coming up dry. Or the problem with the Arkansas River -- the Mighty Ark, people call it where it cuts through Dodge City.

That's all it does these days -- cut. In Wyatt Earp's day, and much later, it was 200 feet wide and you had to pay a toll to cross it. Now it's as dry as cowhide, stunted grass growing in the river bottom, kids walking across tossing Frisbees.

O'Connor has been here three years and, other than a little rain runoff, he hasn't seen any water in the Mighty Ark since he arrived.

But it isn't nature, with one of her whims, doing that. It's man -- pushing all those windmill wells down to draw water out of the greatest underground reservoir in America, the Ogallala Aquifer, far faster than nature can put it back.

The Ogallala stretches almost 1,000 miles from South Dakota down under Nebraska and this part of Kansas and on through the Oklahoma panhandle to west central Texas. The aquifer is a mix of sand and water, as much as 400 feet thick in some places, as little as 25 in others, covering an area as big as California.

O'Connor knows a lot about the Ogallala. He knows that since the farmer learned how to extract its water less than two decades ago, using huge irrigation sprinklers to splash it across parched land, it has made wastelands bloom. Over near Cimarron "sand dunes that looked like they were in Saudi Arabia" are producing feed grains now.

He also knows the farmers are pulling the water out 15 to 20 times as fast as the rains put it back. In some places half the water is gone, and under western Kansas, according to some government studies, the Ogallala could be as dry as the Mightly Ark by the year 2000.

O'Connor takes a philosophical approach to that. When the water goes, this country will be back to what it was 20 years ago -- dry land farming, sand dunes creeping back in over by Cimarron, irrigated corn fields giving way to hardier winter wheat or just plain grazing land.

He also knows that will be a tougher life, that some of the boom will be taken out of Cowboy Jack's Dodge City. Just as nature sets up its food and life cycles, so does man. The Ogallala water irrigates corn that fattens a lot more cattle a lot faster than dry land ever did.

But he also knows it is human nature to worry about this year's drought -- the sun-singed corn and the heat-burned grazing lands -- than about an underground lake that's always been there.

"We're mining water, and mines run dry," O'Connor says. "But if you've got 25 foot of the Ogallala under you and you draw it down a foot a year, maybe it nags at you a bit. If you've got a couple hundred feet, it's somebody's else's problem."

Over at the feed lots, Steve Winter is weighing truckloads of corn-and-grain mix as they roll in. The drought isn't helping any, especially with the corn. But looking ahead, he figures this will be a pretty good year because of the elections.

"The politicians aren't going to let cattle prices drop much until after November," Winter says. "Then I don't count on much.

Out at the south end of town where the old Santa Fe Trail is a two-lane road now, a group of modern cattle drivers are eating dinner at the Gunsmoke Truck Stop.

Bunk Mayes, an Oklahoman who hauls 50,000 pounds of cattle on the hoof in a truck he owns, hasn't seen it this way in a long time. He's trying to look ahead, too, because he figures he's got it better now than he will next year.

Out along his highways, the grazing grass is so brown the ranchers are filling the truck as fast as he can turn it around. They are talking him into going overweight -- ducking the truck scales if he can, eating the $250 fines if he can't.

Mayes has been driving 25 years but he says all the fun is going out of it, with so many government regulations he needs an accountant, with 55-mile-an-hour limits, gas prices going ot of sight and an insurance company that takes $6,000 a year to cover his eight-year-old truck.

Still, looking ahead as far as he can, Mayes thinks this is the year to make it.

"I'm trying to stash all the money I can," he says, picking away at a $2 hamburger. "Next year is going to hurt. All these people are moving their cattle off that burned grass so fast now there aren't gonna be any to move next year."

Mayes knows a little bit about the Ogallala Aquifer, having driven out here all his life. He's watched the windmill pumps sprout like sunflowers and "I guess they're drawing the water down pretty fast, huh?"