For years, the poor, black (north Laurel) family had watched the rich, young, black contractor next door. Just beyond their glass kitchen door, through the wire mesh fence he erected between them, they could see his modern, 12-room house, his swimming pool, his tennis court.

There he went in his sleek car, in his fine clothes. It did not really bother them, they said; people are entitled to what they can get.

He, in turn, displayed little disdain for the 16 poor people -- the parents, children and grandchildren -- spilling out of the converted, wooden military barracks next door. The juxtaposition of rich and poor was hardly an issue; it was common throughout rural pockets of Howard County where suburbs were developing. The two families simply went separate ways.

Then on March 30 -- Palm Sunday -- they confronted each other in a blaze of gunfire. When the shooting stopped, one visitor to the small home of the poor family lay dead and another was seriously wounded.

Hours later, the man in the big house, Robert L. Clay, one of Maryland's leading minority contractors, and his brother Raymond were charged with murder and assault.

The spark to the violence, according to police, was a seemingly trivial theft: $4.25 worth of plumbing materials stolen from a construction site belonging to the Clay's father, Raymond Sr. The elder Clay blamed his son's neighbors; the poor family pulled together; the Clay brothers took up for their father. Anger intensified on both sides and climaxed in the shootout.

The immediate reaction to the shooting established the case as far more than another back yard killing.

Prominent black officials, including U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) and an NAACP leader, voiced support for the accused brothers, charging that police had discriminated against them by setting their bond too high. Other supporters of the Clays, noting that the brothers claimed self-defense, questioned why police took the word of a poor family over that of prominent businessmen. When whites are involved, these friends insisted, officers defer to the claims of the rich over the poor.

Howard County police officials countered that the Clays were treated like anyone else. "If we hadn't charged them, people would say we ignored the case because the victims were poor and black," one official said.

Beyond the controversy lies a story of two families -- one rich, one poor -- and the tensions and frustrations that welled between them as one succeeded in a white man's world and the other was left behind. Neighbors and acquaintances of the two families say the theft did not cause the shooting; it simply ignited a conflict that had been building for years.

Robert Lee Clay, 34, moved five years ago into the most opulent house in High Ridge Park, a small community just east of I-95 in Howard County where he was born and raised. The house, like his fine clothes and cars, fit with Clay's style of wearing success with a certain flamboyance.

In many ways, he was a model of emerging black capitalism, its drive and its hustle. He had learned contracting from his father, who owned a backhoe and dug dirt for hourly pay. In 1967, building on his father's meager assets and his own entreprenurial flair, he started Robert Clay Inc., an excavating and dirt-hauling firm. As he built his business, he made all-important contacts among black leaders and white contractors. When minority business participation goals found their way into most federal contracts in the late 1970s, he was poised for takeoff.

If Clay had a violent temper, business associates said they never noticed it. Yet there was a violent streak in his past. In 1976, he was tried for attempted murder in the shotgun shooting of a man seen visiting his estranged wife in Columbia. Police testified they-found Clay's fingerprint on the shotgun shell. The jury acquitted him. Later, the shooting victim sued for damages and was awarded $20,000 in a civil jury trial. Clay is appealing the judgment.

As he grew into the businessman's role, Clay learned to mix it with politics, particularly the race issue, to open still more doors. The walls of two rooms in Clay's spacious house are decked with glossy photos and news clippings chronicling his rise and his penchant for dabbling in politics.

A slim, smiling Clay clasps hands with Sen. Edward Kennedy in one picture, with Congressman Mitchell in another, with Gov. Harry Hughes, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., then-Sen. Edmund Muskie and many more. (Most of the non-Maryland dignitaries do not know him personally, he said; the pictures were taken at large public affairs.)

In 1977, he founded the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, and found ready advocates in Mitchell, then head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and in leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as Clay and his group pushed for black access to public construction contracts. If he encountered roadblocks, Clay said, he simply made a few phone calls, and support came forth from Mitchell and other black leaders.

Clay's brushes with the law apparently did not obstruct his rise. With $3.8 million in contracts on the Baltimore subway, he has the most work of any minority contractor of the project. Weeks after the Palm Sunday shooting, he won the biggest subcontract awarded to a minority firm on the $400 million Fort McHenry tunnel in Baltimore -- $7.7 million worth of excavation and hauling, awarded to Robert Clay Inc.

By white contracting standards, the totals are relatively modest, but in the tenuous world of minority business in Maryland, they make Clay easily one of the men out front.

To the large, poor family that lives across the driveway from Clay, those totals are staggering. Floyd Hall Sr., the head of the clan, is a boiler-room employe with the Montgomery County school system.

He and his wife, Mabel, raised nine children on his salary. Those who have reached working age have pitched in: Florence works at Howard Johnson's; Floyd Jr. delivers lunches to a Head Start center; Allen is a car mechanic. None of them has even reached the managerial level, but that is not even an issue.

"Money is power, yes, but to me, manners, respect, a family will carry you further than education and money," Mabel Hall said recently. The Hall family feels no envy toward the rich man next door, she added.

"I hear people saying we want to punish him out of jealousy," she said, referring to the criminal charges against Clay. "Why jealousy? Everyone's got a right to what he can get."

A large woman, she sat slightly slumped, in a metal folding chair in her kitchen as children and grandchildren wandered in and out, sometimes grabbing a biscut or a piece of cake from the platters balanced precariously atop the stove. Crumbs, were clumped on the torn, red carpet, and the faded kitchen wallpaper was peeling.

The daughter and wife of Floyd Hall Jr., 22, live with the family; two more grandchildren bring the total Hall population to 16. Other people come and go, sometimes leading to a musical-chairs approach to the bedrooms, but always finding room, Mrs. Hall said.

The extra borders on Palm Sunday included Alphonso Hill, 27, Florence's boyfriend who came over after working the night shift at a Laurel motel, and George Webb Jr., the Halls' 21-year-old cousin.

A school bus aide to the handicapped, Webb had pooled resources with his father, a church custodian, to help care for his mother during a lengthy illness that recently ended in her death. He was also helping support his 4-year-old brother Bicentennial, named for the year in which he was born, Webb's father said.

"He was happy-go-lucky George. He joked and he kidded. He loved children and he played with all these children," Mabel Hall said.

Webb knew nothing of the conflict that was brewing that day between the poor Halls and the rich Clays. The day before, on March 29, two plumbing fittings had disappeared from Raymond Clay Sr.'s construction site across All Saints Road from the Hall home.

The elder Clay, 69, had long suspected the Hall sons of pilfering materials from his sites, of siphoning gas from his truck, he said. "It was time to put a stop to it," Clay said later.

That afernoon, Clay Sr. came to the Hall family's kitchen door with a Howard County policeman to demand what was his. The theft, yelling angrily at the old man, affronted by the intrusion of the law. They had found the fittings in their own yard and sold them to a local junk dealer, they said. In the end, they gave Clay the $4.25 the dealer had paid them, still maintaining their innocence, still enraged.

That night, the elder Clay again clled the police. Someone had shot at him, and missed, he said, someone he did not see. Police searched without success for an assailant; they couldn't find a bullet either.

Again, Clay suspected the Halls and he took his concerns that night to his sons.

The next morning, Robert Clay, dressed in handsome day clothes, and his brother, Raymond, wearing a three-piece black suit, walked across the gravel drive between Robert's and the hall's houses. Floyd Hall Sr. met them at the door, irritated at being disturbed on his day of rest. His sons gathered behind him on the stoop. 'both families crossed words. Hall said he could see the outline of a gun in Raymond's jacket pocket.

"Robert [clay] told me if anybody hurt his daddy, he'd put him in the ground," Hall recalled tersely. "I said if anybody hurt my sons it would be the same. Then I told 'em to leave my property."

Minutes later, Robert Clay called the oldest Hall son, Floyd Jr. to his fence to talk. Floyd and his brother, Allen 17, walked over, Allen with a blackjack in his hand, Floyd with a gun stuck in the back of his pants waistband.

Hill and Webb walked outside soon afterwards. Webb was unarmed; Hill had a small handgun, police said. At some point, Raymond Jr. walked out to his brother's back yard, also carrying a pistol.

Accounts vary from one family to the other on what happened next.The Halls said Robert Clay ordered his brother to "Shoot the motherf---," and then helped hold Hill as Raymond pumped bullets into his arm and chest. One bullet caught Webb in the back and pierced his heart; he died minutes later. The Clays maintained they were defending their own property, that Hill fired first. The police charged them on the theory that the use of deadly force was unwarranted.

A Howard County district court judge has held separate preliminary hearings for the two brothers on charges of murder and assault, and set the trial date for Sept. 8.

Faced with a murder charge, Robert Clay responded much as he did when confronted with roadblocks to minority contractors. Allowed by police to make a phone call that Sunday night, he contacted Silas Craft, head of the Howard County NAACP, to complain that he was being discriminated against; He and his brother had acted in self-defense; and in any case, the size of their bail bond was discriminatory, he said. Craft forwarded the complaint to Mitchell and the result was a press conference in 'mitchell's Baltimore office.

Mitchell and Craft portrayed the Clay brothers as victims of racial discrimination, although the two victims also were black. Robert Clay handed out a written statement saying in part: "It does not matter how much money one has as long as racism exists in this country. Blacks will never get equal justice and protection from the law."

Mitchell said later that he intervened only to question the large bond the Clays had to post. As it turned out, one of the brother's lawyers had personally structured the bond that way. Mitchell said he stepped out of the picture immediately after the press conference.

The shooting polarized the otherwise peaceful High Ridge Park subdivision for several days. Nothing like this had ever happened before, neighbors said. fGradually, things returned to normal, although several neighbors recently voiced lingering resentment toward the show of establishment black support for the accused bothers.

"I'm not taking sides." one woman said as she peered from her front porch toward Clay's house. "But I just wonder. I see all that he [Clay] has. tI went to high school too, I work hardtoo. Why him and not me."

"Mr. Mitchell got up there saying it was a shame for the Clays," George Webb, Sr. said. "What about Georgie? The poor people who were out there and got shot, were they just animals? Nobody cared about them." Webb and Hill have filed a $27 million damage suit against the Clays.

The Halls and Clays have not spoken to each other since the shooting; the divisions between them are violently clear. Floyd Hall Jr. leaned against his glass kitchen door recently, looking at Clay's property where the young contractor was building a two-story garage."This man's out here spending money to fix up his house," Hall said scornfully. "If that was me, I'd be out there trying to put my money away for court. He acts like he doesn't have a care in the world."

Across the street, Raymond Clay Sr. has resumed work on the construction site where his two plumbing fittings were stolen three months ago. Recently, he paused from his task to talk to a visitor. He resembled an older more simple version of his son, dressed in torn and darned pants, a thin line of dirt running under his fingernails from the day's work.

He spoke of his pride in his son's success ("Have you seen the picture of him with Senator Kennedy?"), of his own life of hard work, of his years of saving to buy a backhoe. And of the Palm Sunday shooting.

"I don't think I did nothing wrong," he said. "But I know it shouldn't have happened." A breeze mixed the smells of construction with the scent of flowers and trees. "I know that instead of making enemies, I'd rather make friends," he went on. "When you get 69, ain't too much left, you know."