"Curtis has a gun," one of the little boys at the cafeteria table whispered to a friend.

"Yeah man, I saw it, but it ain't real," the friend said.

It was 9 a.m. yesterday and four little boys sat at a table in the cafeteria of Langdon Elementary School in a quiet section of Northeast Washington eating a breakfast of pancakes and sausages. The talk was of a gun.

Curtis Chase, 9-year-old and in the second grade, a bright-eyed little boy who likes to play football and ride his bicycle, had the others enthralled. He said he had a gun on him -- and it was real.

Some didn't believe him, so Curtis led the group into the boy's restroom and showed them. It was a .22 caliber pistol, the kind of cheap, Saturday Night Special robbers use to hold up liquor stores and service stations. Curtis pointed the gun in the air, pulled the trigger, but there was only a clicking noise. Playfully, he pointed it at one of the other boys. Click.

Then he pointed the barrel at his chest and squeezed. There was a loud explosion. Clutching his chest, Curtis stumbled back into the cafeteria and fell to the floor.

A bullet had lodged near his heart. Other children finishing breakfast and preparing for classes, saw him and screamed.

Quickly, an ambulance was summoned to the school and Curtis was rushed off to Children's Hospital. Heart surgeons and physicians worked on him for three hours in the emergency room and three hours in the operating room. After the operation, they said his condition had improved somewhat, from critical to serious. He was placed in the intensive care unit after the operation.

Doctors said he was in serious condition, but were hopeful he would pull through.

City police, relatives and neighbors of the boy were attempting to determine last night how he got the gun.

Ernest B. Mercer, the principal at Langdon Elementary, said he was disturbed by the incident but did not know how it could have been prevented.

"You can't search children when they come to school," he said.

Word of the shooting spread quickly in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood around the school at 20th and Franklin streets NE. Several parents rushed to the school and a few took their children home.

At the Montana Terrace apartments nearby where Curtis, his mother and two sisters live, there was shock at the incident.

Curtis, neighbors said, can be mischevious sometimes, like many 9-year-old boys, but basically is a good child who enjoys playing football and riding his bicycle.

Some said the boy had been disturbed about the shooting death of his father, Donreith (Donnie) McMillan, 28, who was killed last October outside the apartment building when he tried to break up an argument.

"This is the first time I ever heard of a kid with a gun," said one neighbor, Terry Warren. "Most of the parents work really hard to keep the neighborhood under control.

Gladys Anderson, another neighbor, said "I'm like a second mother to him [Curtis]. I like him and he comes to me for all kinds of things. I was shocked when I heard it. I couldn't think anything. I always felt safe here until Dennis got shot."

Marie Haskins, Curtis' grandmother, who was at the hospital yesterday, said, "You read about kids getting hold of guns but you never think about your grandchildren."

Haskins said Curtis, who neighborhood kids called "Hobo" because he was always hanging around, "is a smart little boy with a lot of common sense. I'd say he's good as far as little boys go but kids always find some mischief."

At the school, principal Mercer spent the day trying to calm things down. He told several parents who came to the school that everything was under control and reassured them that there was no need to take their children out of school.

"I'm going back home," said Sonia Gray, a parent. "I just came to make sure my child was in her room and safe . . . It's a very fine school in a very fine neighborhood."

The school, which currently is housed in a building erected in 1931, has traditional self-contained classrooms as well as open space classrooms.

There are 450 prekindergarten-through-sixth grade students at the school.

Yesterday at noon, Mercer, a bull horn in hand, stood in the school cafeteria, watching the children eat lunch. "Sit down," he told some girls and boys who were fidgeting at the green and white tables.

"That's where he was," one little boy said to a friend, pointing at a spot on the green colored floor where Curtis collapsed.