This tumbledown desert town of tin roofs should have died long ago. Its gold and silver mines closed in the 1950s. Its people, mostly old and retired now, have never been more than squatters on government land.

But in the dawn of a new American romance with rural life, what otherwise would be economically crippled highway stops like Red Mountain are luring refugees from expensive, uncomfortable cities.

Charles Speich, a former CIA photo interpreter from Rockville, Md., has moved here. So has Harold Miller, a southern California real estate broker. With the rest of the town's 130 residents, they have turned Red Mountain, named for the eerie crimson glow that lights a nearby ridge at sunset, into a major testing ground. They say they wonder whether this growing American population shift can conquer federal law and the big mining interests.

"It is a unique situation," said Mark Lawrence, the local U.S. Bureau of Land Management official faced with the problem. "Essentially, the entire town is in trespass."

Nowhere else in these high reaches of the Mojave Desert, or in any other of the federal government's vast land holdings, has a community fought so long, with so many last-minute setbacks, to gain title to a dusty, pebble-strewn wilderness covered with little more than creosote bushes.

The fight might have petered out long ago, but several urban refugees wise in the way of bureaucracies and the news media have given it new life, all for the pleasure of enjoying the desert's cool night air and preserving a quiet spot to watch great horned owls hunt for prey.

Speich, 64, who calls himself "Red Mountain Charlie" in some of his mailed appeals for support, writes of the "restfulness of being able at any time of day to rest one's eyes against the side of the ever-present mountain--or again to slide off into a sidelong glance at limitless views . . . . "

He takes a visitor around the town's hills in an old red pickup, pointing out the aeries of hawks and eagles and the tracks of the endangered desert tortoise, the official California state reptile.

Speich and his friends might already own the land, 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles on Rte. 395, except for the mining industry's renewed interest in it. Rising silver prices have led the Silver State Mining Corp. of Colorado to sink test holes here.

If the yield is good and the company decides to begin open-pit silver mining, it legally could order nearly everyone in town to leave. Officials of the Bureau of Land Management, who have alternately resisted and cooperated with the townspeople for three decades, say they can do nothing to prevent evictions.

This place used to be called Sin City. Its saloons and brothels were frequented by men drawn to the area by the silver strike of 1919 at the Kelly mine, not far from the little house where Speich now lives. The prostitutes are gone, townspeople say, although some of their roadside shacks survive.

William Reed, 55, a real estate salesman who has led the fight for Red Mountain's survival, lives in what was the Owl Saloon. He has furnished a guest bedroom with red lights and velvet wallpaper to preserve the mood.

In the old days, no one bothered with deeds or land titles. But after the mines closed, townspeople petitioned the federal government in 1959 to sell them the property where they lived. That began what Reed calls a "horror story."

A local judge who was the trustee for the town's application under the federal town-site act died in the mid-1960s, and citizens were unaware that he had delayed filing essential papers because of a highway survey. It was not until 1974 that Reed discovered that the town-site application had not gone forward.

Reed accuses federal officials of intentionally keeping this information from the townspeople, one of several incidents of what Red Mountain people claim is federal skulduggery. The residents submitted a new application, but it was voided by a change in federal law that ended the town-site act, another thing about which federal officials allegedly failed to warn Red Mountain's residents.

A local congressman seeking an exemption for the town died before his efforts could bear fruit.

A new application to pay the "fair market value" of $170 an acre for the town's 130 acres seemed to promise some success. But, at the last minute, the federal bureau told town leaders in May that mining companies that have first legal claim on the land are again interested in using it.

"All the time the government was saying, 'Sure, we're going to sell you the land.' We assumed the federal government knew what it was talking about," Reed said. Lawrence, the bureau's resources manager in nearby Ridgecrest, said that the bureau could not foresee the sudden upturn in the price of silver.

Reed, who is undergoing cancer therapy, and his business partner, Walt Hartman, spent at least $10,000 in their early struggle to get a town site approved. In 1981, at the urging of the federal bureau, residents formed the Red Mountain Town Site Association Inc., which has spent more than $20,000 to survey the property at the bureau's request so that accurate maps could be presented for county and federal approval.

Many of the people living here, particularly old-timers from the mining days, live in near-poverty. Retired federal worker Ernest Green, his voice breaking, said, "For these people to come in and ask us to get the hell off our property, which we have been fighting for for 20 years, is the height of inhumanity."

Speich said that he will not move.

"The sky is clear and blue, and the air is fresh," he said. He and his wife, Carrol, explore the hills and occasionally try sand-sailing on a dry lake bed nearby where winds gust about the Rand Mountains.

"It's a nice, slow life. It's not a rat race," said Miller, the association's president.

The small houses have been bought cheaply, but their owners have made many improvements. "We worked hard to get our water system in. We worked hard to get our lights in," Green said.

The town is, in Reed's view, a historian's delight. Stories abound of local characters like Death Valley Scottie and Shotgun Mary, who once held off developers in another part of the desert. Underneath the town lie 57 miles of abandoned mining tunnels, used to hide stills during Prohibition.

"You'll be watering your plants and the bush won't get wet because it will all be running down into a tunnel," Speich said.

"Those old miners, they didn't leave much," said Carl Swanson, caretaker for the abandoned Kelly mine. He said one company spent $300,000 on a mineral survey in the 1960s but found no profitable minerals left.

Testing crews are now pounding the soil, however. And mining company officials have shown little interest in the efforts of the bureau, member of Congress and townspeople to work out an arrangement where miners and residents could coexist.

Lawsuits are possible, but the federal mining laws appear to give the mining companies the right to turn the town into one large pit. Few of the townspeople, old or new, are willing to let that happen.

"Before they kick me off," Speich said, "they are going to have to face a shotgun."