The late afternoon sun dims on the mountains and a chill comes fast to the air. Soldiers at the little outpost lounge around chatting, some clutching their shoulders for warmth. Cattlemen on horseback whip and curse their Brahman herd through the muddy village street. A drunken peasant relieves himself on the side of a hovel where coffee and soft drinks are sold.

There is one resident here who proclaims Ronald Reagan a hero: "numero uno!" He bewails the way things are:

Life under the Sandinista government is hard. Counterrevolutionary, or contra, guerrillas stalk the countryside, sometimes within three miles of the town.

No young men are left. The government takes them away to the Army, even 14-year-old boys. Others join the contras.

Now the government has brought up heavy artillery, firing 100 rounds the other day into the surrounding hills. Many civilians were killed by the shelling, but he has seen no bodies.

At the military command shack, a plump and cherubic young woman in green fatigues sits beneath a large photograph of Vladimir Lenin, giggling at our picture taking. Her bookshelf is filled with Lenin's writings. She is the political commissar for the outpost. Her perception of reality is matter-of-fact:

The contras, despite U.S. support, are not doing well. They have been forced to change their tactics from large to small group operations. They ambush, kidnap and attack isolated farms. They sabotaged with little effect a hydroelectric plant. They burn trucks and paint them with slogans, but they are too weak to engage the Army directly.

Their main target is the coffee harvest, and they have caused problems. There are not enough people to pick the coffee beans. Trucks are breaking down. Spare parts are in short supply. There is terrible poverty, as in this village; things are not getting better. Life is a struggle for subsistence. Her morale is good.

It is the same in other towns and cities here in the war zone -- Jinotega, Matagalpa, Esteli. The conversations are repetitious -- tales of ambushes, contra harassment and fears for the harvest of coffee, the most precious export crop.

Military vehicles prowl the potholed highways and back roads in great numbers. Armed soldiers are everywhere, sentinels to the fact of war.

But something is missing. There is no palpable sense of tension or fear in the air. The pace and rituals of life go on as before. The troops are relaxed and sloppy, their faces and eyes unmarked by the terror of combat.

In the 125 miles between Managua and these mountain towns there is not a single roadblock or military checkpoint. A woman hitchhiker in uniform, plodding alone on a country road, dumps her AK47 in the car trunk when she catches a ride. Her large portable radio -- a "ghetto blaster" -- is kept in her lap.

No bomb or shell craters are visible. The towns are unscathed. At the large hospital outside Esteli, only two soldiers are encountered with combat wounds. The ultimate commentary on the modesty of the conflict may be the presence in these towns of scores of tourists and internacionalistas who have come from Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States to "show solidarity with the revolution" or merely to partake of "an experience."

Busloads of people of all ages, including grandmothers and small children, roll into the mountains on group tours, armed only with san-dals and cameras. Some are looking for "another Vietnam." They don't find it, although the street urchins of Esteli are as persistent in their quest for cigarettes as the urchins of Saigon in times past.

Some people, of course, are dying. Col. Carlos Rojas, a military briefer at Matagalpa, reports that since October, 700 civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed in the northern provinces. But the more widespread effects of the war are economic, political and psychological. The draft has caused profound public resentment and resistance. There have been draft riots in more than one town, in part because of the economic hardship inflicted on families dependent on young sons to work the farms and bring home wages. Illegitimacy is widespread, producing countless households headed by women.

A soldier's mother at the Esteli hospital spoke of the "suffering" she and her daughter have endured since the Army took the boy now lying in the hospital bed: "He was our only support; now we have no one."

The government's military expenditures -- 40 to 60 percent of the national budget -- are a painful burden on a society afflicted by poverty of the most cruel dimensions. By all accounts, no one is starving. But the minimum wage is less than $3 a month at the black market currency exchange rate.

The average wage, according to trade union official Alvin Guthrie, is about 3,000 cordobas or $6 a month. He ticks off the cost of living: food prices have doubled in the past year, the cheapest pair of shoes costs 800 cordobas, a pair of men's trousers 2,000. A good dress costs 3,000 cordobas, a good pair of women's shoes 5,000.

These prices are driven up almost daily by an inflation rate now estimated by the U.S. Embassy at 60 percent annually. Wages, on the other hand, are frozen or allowed by the government to rise only slightly.

Living standards are lower today than three years ago, according to the Sandinista propaganda chief in Jinotega, Ramon Blandon.

"We are making a large effort just to maintain a subsistence level," he said, "but many things are not available."

That effort is sustained only by subsidies from the Soviet Bloc. The one place for the purchase of U.S. consumer goods is a "dollar store" in Managua, open only to diplomats, other resident foreigners and Sandinista officials. It stocks delicatessen foods, fine whiskeys and jewelry.

There are those here -- various opposition political figures and embassy analysts -- who find a few beneficial effects from the war.

They argue -- never for quotation -- that the contras forced the governing junta to hold national elections in November, to abandon their rhetorical threats to take the Sandinista revolution to neighboring soil and to defer the introduction of more severe Marxist-Leninist measures.

The Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, Carlos Tunnermann, gives some credence to that theory.

If the war is stopped, he said, Nicaragua will stop accumulating Soviet arms, will end press censorship, establish good relations with its neighbors and the United States and reach accommodations with the Roman Catholic Church.

Tomas Borge, one of the ruling Sandinista comandantes, speaks with qualifications in the same vein. All sides seem to believe that the next 12 months will be critical for the Sandinista government.

"We will see," a western diplomat predicted, "how much worse economic conditions can get before the society reaches the breaking point. Maybe there is no breaking point, but if there is, the Sandinistas could be kicked out."

What happens then? "I wonder," he replied, "if the Reagan administration has asked that question. Does it really want the contras running the country?" He had no answer to his own question.