Grocer Danny Holmes was bringing in the kale, collards, juicy apples and tree-ripened pears from the produce stand outside his small, Silver Hill, Md., convenience store when one of his elderly customers began yelling: h"I've been robbed! There he goes! You've got to stop him!"

"Shirley," said Holmes to his wife and business partner (she keeps the books), "watch the store. I'll be right back."

It was 6:45 p.m. last Saturday and the Hershey's Ice Cream clock glowed in the window of Danny, Paul and Mike's Grocery, just across the District line. Holmes, who named the store for his boys, jumped into the red Fiat Spyder of his stepson and manager, Paul Brown, 27. And with Brown at the wheel, they screeched out onto Naylor Road.

Jane Smith, 22, Holmes' stepdaughter, was already barreling down the street after the robbers. She'd been sitting outside the store in her blue Chevette when she heard the scream of a woman who sounded like her mother and saw a man running toward Southern Avenue.

Stretching her 18-month-old daughter, Knicole, across her lap, she slipped the car into gear and gave chase.

The man darted into the Rosely Apartments. Seconds later, he dashed out and jumped into the getaway car, a silver 1980 Mustang. She was on their tail.

The three-car procession sped down Southern Avenue. Jane Smith didn't know her brother and stepfather were right behind her. Nor did they know that she was also in pursuit.

But as Brown swung out to pass the car between him and the getaway vehicle, he called out: "Look, it's Jane." Holmes waved. Together, they continued the chase. When the Mustang stopped for a red light at Stanton Road and Bruce Place, they corralled it.

Holmes jumped out an lunged for the man in the passenger seat. The purse that had been stolen from his customer was in the man's lap. "You m----- f---, what did you steal that bag for?" he shouted.Holmes tried to drag the man out, punching with all the power his 6-foot-2, 200-pound body could deliver. His stepson, a rock-hard athlete who works as a children's counselor for Tucker Road Recreation Center in Oxon Hill when he's not tending the store, took care of the driver.

Then as Jane Smith watched in horror, the man grappling with her stepfather reached beneath the seat and pulled out a gun. She shouted a warning -- "DADDY!" -- but it was too late. Shots rang out.

The first .38 slug, she thinks, caught Holmes in the left shoulder, knocking him back. Another shot him in the leg. A third slug tore into the back of his head, missing the brain stem, but ripping through the occiptial region, according to Dr. Douglas S. Dixon, the D.C. medical examiner who performed the autopsy.

Jane Smith knelt and held Holmes' head, feeling her stepfather's life ebb out between her fingers. She tried mouth-to-mouth resusictation, but she knew he was dead.

Her brother lunged for the gunman. A shot caught him in the stomach. He managed to grab the pistol. They wwrestled. He squeezed the trigger, wounding the man in the hand. The driver jumped him. Brown bit his ear off. wAs motorists gawked, the robbers fled.

Smith, a petite woman (5 feet 1 and 110 pounds) who can barely reach the pedals on the Metro bus she drives in Virginia, jumped in her car and pursued the killer. He ran across the street. She hurtled her car over the median, and somehow, she says, "my car found its way onto the sidewalk."

She caught the man square between her headlights and floored the accelerator. She got him. He went down, only to scramble back to his feet, albeit limping, and disappeared into the night. "I'd have gotten him again, if I hadn't gotten the car stuck in the grass," she said later.

By the time she got her car out, the gunman was gone. So she went back across the streeet to her brother and drove him to greater Southeast Community Hospital. The bullet was taken out of his stomach Tuesday. He was discharged in time to attend Holmes' funeral yesterday.

About 450 mourners filled the air with prayer and quiet sobs inside Allen AME Methodist Church at 2498 Alabama Avenue SE yesterday. Flowers surrounded the altar as the minister praised a man who will be remembered because he died while trying to help a customer recover a stolen purse. Outside, on a crisp, clear afternoon, pallbearers loaded the gray casket into the back of a dark blue Cadillac hearse.

Daniel R. Holmes, 47, rest in peace.

They had streamed by the hundreds into Stewart's Funeral Home Thursday night -- family friends, customers, buddies who had sorted mail with Holmes in the old days, when he worked for the post office. A one-word question hung on all their lips: "Why?" Why would an unarmed grocer chase after two robbers?

"I've been running that question through my head for days," said brother Michael Holmes, 37, a GS-9 personal management specialist for the Department of the Army.

"He was a wonderful man, but that night he just made a mistake," said his father, Abraham Lincoln Holmes, 70, a retired coal miner from West Virginia.

Daniel, the oldest of eight children, was raised in Clarksburg, W.Va., and he was perhaps the most headstrong. The elder Holmes, a proud, reed-thin man with a powerful sadness in his eyes, ambled up to the flag-draped coffin, where his boy was dressed in a natty gray plaid suit, his full beard neatly trimmed. He touched him. "It's like he's asleep," said the old man.

"The family is so upset he pursued those guys," said Doris Holmes, a sister-in-law. "It was such a useless death. The woman [the customer] had just bought a lottery ticket." She had $700 in her purse -- money, police say, that she had saved for a trip to Hawaii to attend a PTA convention.

"Why, why, why? There's no answer to it," said brother Ronald Holmes, 35, a top Geico insurance agent. "It just occurred. It happened. There's no logical explanation.You can point the finger, but it's not going to bring him back, or lessen the grief of his family."

As for the unleased fury of Holmes' pixieish stepdaughter, her husband, Dr. Richard Smith of St. Elizabeths, put it this way: "Tempers run in the family. You do something to one of 'em, you'll have to deal with the rest of them."

For six years from the day he left the Post Office to become a grocer, Danny Holmes had taken their lip and laid down the law. He warned the tough young men in the leather jackets and stocking caps who skulked up and down the aisles of cornbread stuffing, Vienna sausage and Jolly Time pop corn to keep their hands out where he could see them.

He'd backed down more than one -- "jitterbugs' he called them -- with his sharp-tongued bravado: "Just bogard your way out the same way you come in," he'd say. He had a shotgun, too, just in case. Customers say they felt safe sending their wives and children into his Silver Hill convenience store at 3201 Naylor Road, just across the District line.

And just the other day, after burglars chopped through his roof and cracked his safe, he fumed about the "young hoodlums who won't let no one have nothing of their own."

Danny Holmes -- grocer, ex-postman, father of six -- worked hard for everything he had and he was willing to fight to keep it. He realized that "If you don't take care of yours, someone will take it from you," said his brother, Ronald Holmes.

It didn't matter that the customer last Saturday who yelled, "Stop, thief!" was a woman who constantly groused that his prices were higher than Safeway. It didn't matter that she failed to understand the economies of scale, and that the insurance, the closed circuit TV, the two-way mirror he installed in the back office to keep an eye out -- all those things cost money.

It didn't matter. If you stole from a customer, you stole from Danny Holmes.

Danny Holmes' grocery sits at the end of a small, four-store shopping area at the foot of the Marlborough House Apartments.Open seven days a week, Fridays and Wednesdays until 11 p.m., it draws a mixed clientele: singles in need of last minute party snacks, families who need bread and milk and a stream of D.C. residents who line up to buy tickets for the Maryland Lottery.

Next door sits Matt's Liquor Store, where, some time back, a man was shot. Artina Brooks, 29, a D.C. patrolwoman and Holmes' stepdaughter, happened to be in the grocery. She saw the men dash by, drew her gun, chased them to the corner and called Prince George's County police. "You never turn a corner after robbers," she says. "That's the first thing you learn."

Further up is Butch Fairall's Club 51. It specializes in pizza, meatball sandwiches, pinball and beer. The first thing Fairall, 42, does when he gets out of the bed every afternoon to drive in from his 10-acre spread in Croom, Md., is to strap on his gun.

Behind the counter, he's never without his featherweight, Last Chance bulletproof vest and the .357 magnum with the three-inch barrell. He has experienced three unsuccessful holdups. Once police shot and killed an armed robber inside Club 51.

"I'd never hesitate to shoot someone," says Fairall. "I don't want to end up like Holmes.

"Jesus. God. Such a bad thing.It's so terrible. He was friends with everyone: white, blacks, blue, green. When I heard Danny died, I just wanted to crawl in a hole.

For the small merchants of Southeast Washington and beyond who understand each others risks and split the rewards, fear is a constant companion. Bad news travels fast. And one man's troubles are another's nagging reminder. Like soldiers referring to past battles, they have their own curious way of counting casualties. Last names only: Smith, Holmes, Fletcher.

"Fletcher was killed outside this liquor store on Branch Avenue a half mile up the street.He went outside. That's a mistake."

Fairall made a mistake last spring after an armed robber leap-frogged the counter of his pizza shop, stuck a gun in his face and fled. A burly, heavy-set man who obviously enjoys his own pizza, Fairall ran out with his gun drawn. "Thirty minutes later, it occured to me I could have been killed. I went into the bathroom and threw up."

He pays $100 month for a security system: ultra-sonic, closed-circuit TV, burglar bars, deadbolts.Holmes had sunk $4,000 of the $5,000 savings he used to open his store six years ago into security systems.

But his gutsy bravado was his biggest weapon, say friends. He told the young toughs where to get off. Still, if they calmed down, "and wanted a loaf of bread, he'd sell it to 'em," said Fairall. "He had a big heart; he just didn't like 'em giving guff to the ladies. He'd whip ass for that."

For a small, mom and pop grocer mining the opportunity of a hard town, stiff-lipped brinksmanship is the only strategy that works, he says. "If you turn your eye on someone today, they'll come back tomorrow and steal something bigger," he says.

Daniel Holmes dreamed of opening a liquor store. His wife, Shirley, wanted a gift store. The grocery was a compromise.Holmes was the salesman: she crunched the numbers, figured out the mark-ups, decided what to stock. "What you see on the shelves is what our customers asked for," said Mrs. Holmes, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex as she leaned on a box of Oxydol. The first dollar they earned, on Thanksgiving day six years ago, is framed on the wall, beneath the electronic eye.

Right after Christmas, they had planned to take the first vacation together since they had opened the store with their savings, a $1,500 loan, a few dozen eggs, severals bars of soap and a case of dreams. The TV monitor and two-way mirror were constant reminders that urban pioneering has its risks.

"I hate," Shirley Holmes sobbed quietly. "I know I shouldn't, but I hate . . . He was a strong, tall, handsome man." She opens a photograph; there is a likeness to Ed Bradely of CBS.

His friends streamed into the store the other day, past the Gerber baby food, the pinto beans, the pickled pigs feet, Crisco and barbeque sauce, and touched the arm of his widow.

"I'm Vernon Wilkerson," said a man. "I've known Danny for years and years and years. I'm sorry . . ."

"I'm sorry, too," said Shirley Holmes. Danny, Jr., 13, a ninth grader at Benjamin Stoddert High School in Marlow Heights comforted his mother. Grandchildren darted about the aisles.

The daughter of a Springfield, Mass., newstand operator and a teacher, his wife met Danny when they both worked for the U.S. Post Office in the early fifties. He had just returned from serving in Korea to resume the job he left when he was drafted.

She married Holmes in 1965. He treated her four children from a previous marriage like his own. They called him,"Daddy," and worshipped the ground he walked on.

He was forever coining phrases picked up and repeated by his fans. To a friend with a rocky marriage, he'd warn, "Don't blow your Ponderosa." For another, down in his cups, he'd observe: "Some days you got chickens, some days, feather." He had a nickname for everyone.

"Big O" was what he called D.C. homicide detective Otis Fickling, a friendly presence at 6 feet and 280 pounds. As a patrolman, Fickling walked the same Anacostia beat that Holmes trod as a mailman. "He wouldn't just drop off letters, he talked to everybody."

"I just want to know why it is the good people always have to die?" Fickling asks. "Citizens call us all the time. 'The man who killed my daughter is standing on the corner in front of the house,' they say. 'How did he get out of jail so fast?' How can you convince people there's justice in the world?"

Police arrested Walter Jerome Mobley, 29, of 1108 Constitution Ave. NE. last Saturday night after he walked into D.C. general Hospital. aHe sought treatment for a wounded hand. He said he'd gotten shot in a crap game. An attendant noticed his limp.

"How'd you get that?" he was asked.

"Fell down," said Mobley.

The next day, policy arrested his brother, Willie Evans Mobley, 27, of 3660 B. St. SE. He had walked into the police department downtown to inquire why officers had been knocking on his door. He had a bandage on his ear.

They were both arraigned in Superior Court on felony murder charges. For the older brother, bond was set at $10,000; for the younger brother, $5,000. They remain in jail, unable to make bond. Their attorneys had asked that they be released on their own recognizance. The judge denied the motion.

"Why did Holmes take after those people?" asks Fickling, who nearly fainted after fellow detectives working the case told him his friend had died. "He'd had enough, that's why. Everyday he put his life on the line for his customers."

In his younger days, Holmes was a "darer," says Rick Bolling, 45, a former Anacostia letter carrier with Holmes. He took chances. "He was fearless. He wasn't scared of nothing."

The night before he died, Fickling, Bolling and about a dozen others gathered before the giant TV screen in the basement of Holmes' three-bedroom split-level in Hillcrest Heights to watch the Friday night fight. Everybody rooted for Sugar Ray Leonard.

Holmes was proud of his homestead. He once drove Capitol Cab No. 930 to help meet the mortgage payments. And his place was always open for fellow sports fans. In between rounds of the Sugar Ray Leonard fight, Holmes asked about a mailman he once knew, Mudcat Grant.

"He died a few years ago," said Bolling. "Heart attack."

"Wow!" said Holmes. He hadn't heard. "You see a guy today, he's gone tomorrow."