``...I should know better, but I love it when he calls me baby.'' That about sums up the sentiment running through these fresh, highly crafted, image-packed stories by the debuting Houston. Her setting is the West, her protagonists women in their late 20s, rugged, outdoorsy, independent types looking for the love of a good man no less doggedly than are their yuppie sisters; it's only that when the guys out there disappoint--as, according to Houston, guys must--they howl instead of whine. In the collection opener, ``How to Talk to a Hunter'' (Best American Stories 1990), the down-spiraling course of a love affair between the narrator and a classic Houston male (a cowboy who's shared more intimacies with the stuffed mule deer on his wall than he ever will with a woman) trickles out amid amusing aphorisms about the ultimate incompatibility of the sexes. The theme gets replayed in ``Selway'' (from Mademoiselle), though this time in the Deliverance-like action and adventure of a maniacs-only trip down a high-water river, undertaken by the narrator in order to win the love of a professional white-water rafter. It's not until ``Cowboys Are My Weakness'' that the female voices of these stories begin to show some starch. In that story, a woman first discovers the difference between real and ersatz cowboys, then figures out that neither variety is ever going to provide ``the impossible love of a country song.'' And when ``In My Next Life'' finally rolls around, Houston delivers up a rich, sad relationship between two women, one dying of breast cancer, both locked in hopeless affairs with men, both flirting with lesbianism--``Aren't there women who...wake up ready to hold and be held by somebody who knows what it means?'' The author doesn't always search far enough for the reason why smart women behave like dishrags--but most of these stories are fine things from a writer one hopes will come up with a novel before too many suns sink in the West.