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A TASTE OF THE AMERICAN WEST

There had been unpleasantness with her boyfriend. Her ex-boyfriend, she meant. And so this young woman, a Sheridan resident for all of her 20 or so years, had straggled downtown to the Mint one slow night recently, there to punch up some Reba McEntire on the jukebox and sulk beneath the ancient tin ceiling and the festival of taxidermy above the bar.

The Mint is a long-necked Budweiser kind of place, with a neon bucking bronco on its sign out front, but this gal (hey, cut me some slack, we're in Wyoming here) ordered a daiquiri and set to brooding, her back to the pool table. The stuffed animal heads stared blankly at the facing wall's faded photos of trophy trout, conquered broncos, anglers, Native Americans and young wranglers who were now old men."Next time," she said, "I'm getting a cowboy."

In Sheridan, a woman can make such a pledge. And a stranger can find a bracing taste of the American West.

Sheridan, population 13,900, sits at the edge of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming's northeastern corner, lit by a big sky, animated by historic Main Street architecture, neighbored by pasturelands, snowy peaks, trout-bearing lakes and streams, working ranches, guest ranches and several monuments to 19th century frontier battles (including the one that killed Custer). From above, the hilly, rippling high Plains landscape looks like the rumpled linen of a great big unmade bed. Yellowstone National Park lies 201 miles to the west on Interstate 16; Mount Rushmore lies 280 miles east.

So far, the city is largely free of the artificial sweeteners that have lured so many travelers to showplace cities such as Bozeman and Livingston to the northwest, in Montana. But the boutiques and all the rest may be arriving soon.

A 700-unit housing development is proposed on one end of town. Sam Paul Mavrakis, whose family has owned Ritz Sporting Goods in Sheridan for decades, has collaborated with his wife, Carol, to convert an old dairy barn in neighboring Big Horn into a three-room bed and breakfast operation, the Blue Barn, which opened last month. A coffeehouse opened on Main Street six months ago, and one of the waitresses there has a ring in her nose.

Sheridan, named for Civil War Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, was born in 1882 as a grid sketched on a brown paper bag by entrepreneur John D. Loucks. It is the lowest town in the state, geographically speaking. But, Wyoming being Wyoming, it is nevertheless 3,745 feet above sea level, which makes it often hot in summer and cold in winter.

The most popular roads into town lead to Main Street, which in the space of seven blocks has 16 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. For instance: the 1908 Crescent Hotel, which rises on the former site of the original Bucket of Blood saloon, and the 1882 building at 1 South Main, Sheridan's oldest building, which once held a general store and now holds a pharmacy.

If you ignore the second-floor "skyway" tunnel that the Best Western Sheridan Center put across Main a few blocks north in the 1970s - a Jetson's convenience in a tumbleweeds town - it's not hard to imagine a wooden boardwalk under foot and horse troughs alongside it. But it's more educational to investigate the enterprises that Main and neighboring streets still sustain.

At King's Saddlery and King Rope, cowboys from miles around come to buy tools of the trade. Though now retired at 72, Don King (no, not the boxing promoter) has lived in Sheridan on and off since 1936 and built a reputation as one of the nation's premier saddle-makers. The walls jangle with spurs, bridles and belt buckles, the scent of leather work hangs in the air, cowbells are sold for use on actual cows, and broad sheets advertise home-grown instruction on barrel-racing and "the three D's of goat-tying." Determination, dedication, devotion.

In the back stand stacks of hats and sweat shirts for tourists. In workshops downstairs, leather is sculpted into saddles, and sisal from Africa (among various substances) is heated and twisted into rope. King's sells about 35,000 lengths of rope yearly, most of it these days including nylon, or polyester or polypropylene. Four King sons fill various roles at the store, and a cavernous building in back holds Don King's Western Museum.

Across the street, next to the Mint, stands Ritz Sporting Goods. Ritz is proof that Sheridan remains unglamorized - its looming yellow and green sign will win no prizes for subtlety - and it may be the only sporting goods store in the nation to open daily at 6 a.m. and feature a counter for coffee drinkers. For several dozen old ranchers, and one boxer dog dozing beneath a display of fishing poles, the Ritz is where one goes each morning to lament the lack of rain or muse on the triumphs of the high school football team.

A few blocks away stands the Sheridan Inn, root of all imported civilization in Sheridan. Less than a year after the railroad came to town in late 1892, the 62-room inn sprung up near the tracks at Fifth Street and Broadway. Its design was based, strangely, on a hunting lodge the architect had visited in Scotland. Buffalo Bill Cody, a part owner and part-time resident for many years, is said to have sat on the inn porch, auditioning acts for his Wild West show. The hotel closed to lodgers in 1965, and is now owned jointly by the city and county, but a restaurant continues in the old bar and tours are offered by the Sheridan Heritage Center (adults: $3).

"Only a handful of people have known about Sheridan," said Sam Paul Mavrakis, the new B&B proprietor. "But now, a lot of people in Jackson (Hole) and Aspen are getting tired of that, and they want to come here."