Johnson Evans, according to local lore, wanted his store in Virginia and his home in Maryland so he could dredge for oysters on both sides of the line. So influential was he, it is said, that in 1883 the boundary line between the two states was moved 320 feet north -- and right through his bedroom.

The store is long gone from this community in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, but the line that divides both the island and the Chesapeake Bay is not. Although markers have mysteriously disappeared from the creeks and channels nearby, the state line is still a barrier that prevents Smith Islanders from following the crab in their own back yard. Under laws long in effect, commercial fishermen can only practice their trade in their home state and so for the watermen of Smith Island, all residents of Maryland, the boundary is more than imaginary.

Generations of Virginians and Marylanders have fought -- sometimes with guns -- over the state line that divides the bay's bounty. Now, the Smith Islanders have mounted a legal challenge that state officials and bay scientists fear could bring administrative and ecological chaos to the nation's largest estuary.

The fear is grounded in the belief that the lawsuit, due to be decided in November, is based on sound legal precedent that will in effect erase the line, allowing watermen to cross at will and risk depleting the bay. The suit was filed in March after negotiations as delicate as any international treaty talks failed to achieve an informal settlement creating a "neutral zone" in which Smith Islanders could crab.

So concerned is the State of Maryland about the outcome that it has joined the suit on the side of Virginia against its own citizens. "Nobody has any real problems with the crabs," says William (Pete) Jensen, director of Maryland tidal fisheries. "Everyone's looking beyond this decision if the residential barriers come down."

James Douglas, Jensen's Virginia counterpart, expects that to happen. He suggests his state will seek a similar ruling allowing Virginians to head north, perhaps to tong for oysters or to search for rockfish.

The broad implications of what began as a minor border dispute have particularly upset the scientific community, which is concerned that any baywide resource management is, for the foreseeable future, politically impossible. "I said last spring I thought it was a pimple we shouldn't allow to turn into a boil, but it's hard to stop now," warns L. Eugene Cronin, a leading bay scientist worried about a "gold mine" mentality he says could quickly harm any one of the Chesapeake's finely tuned fisheries.

Here on Smith Island, where the water is a way of life and the economic mainstay, they don't see it that way. In the three island towns of Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton, the sentiment is virtually unanimous. Just the cost of fuel alone will keep the Chesapeake's seafood industry for those already here, they say. Further, they say, their very own livelihood is at stake.

"Like if you're living on the outside of Baltimore and working in the District of Columbia, that's the same way it should be down here, too," explained Doris Kitching, whose teen-aged son has just spent his first full-time summer working on the water.

"My God, that crab don't respect lines," said David Laird, an island waterman for 27 of his 42 years. "That crab goes where he wants."

Laird, like many of the islanders, "scrapes" the Bay bottom with a metal-framed net for "peelers," those soon-to-be soft shell crabs that are to the crustacean what filet mignon is to steak. The peelers come to the shallows thick with underwater vegetation called "eelgrass" to shed their shells. And Smith Island, it is widely acknowleged, has some of the best scraping grounds in the world.

Two years ago, however, the thickest eelgrass lay on the Virginia side of the invisible line and Smith Islanders were hard put to make a living. In years past, they would have worked in Virginia anyway, without fear of harassment from marine police based on the state's Eastern Shore. That was before Peter Crockett took the job.

Crockett, known hereabouts as "Juney," quit his post as town cop of Tangier Island, a few miles south of here in Virginia, to take the state job that provided better benefits. On most mornings, Crockett sits in his patrol boat just off South Point enforcing the law.

What his omnipresence has meant for Marylanders straying beyond the half mile or so below the official line he allows them is a tow to Onancock, Va., and a stiff fine plus court costs. "One boy got a $250 ticket this spring for being over the line, trying to make a living," said Billy Dize, reared on Tangier next door to Crockett but now living on Smith. "That ain't right."

Over the years, the line has changed three times. Each time, as Eddie Marshall of Tylerton will tell you, "they've been steady moving it to Virginia, cutting us off, getting us short."

The original line under the charter of 1632 granted by Charles I to Cecil Calvert crossed the Chesapeake from the mouth of the Great Wicomico in Virginia to the Potomac River across the bay. That boundary was almost immediately disputed by a Virginian, Col. Edmund Scarborough, who tried to tax Maryland settlers in Somerset County.

Officials of both states convened at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in 1785 and, drawing a new line from Smith Point at the mouth of the Potomac, gave 20,000 acres to Virginia. Virginians settled even further north in the 1830s, moving into marshes south of Tylerton now uninhabited. They claimed "squatters rights" and paid taxes to Virginia, even though they were in Maryland.

Their claims led to the arbitration of 1877, which gave even more of Maryland to Virginia, and to the 320-foot adjustment of 1883 for Johnson Evans' store at Horse Hammock on the southeastern side of Smith. The line had become a ragged zigzag that placated Virginians but settled nothing.

Open warefare over the line raged well into this century. In 1949, Earl Lee (Pete) Nelson, of Maryland, was shot in the back by Virginia Fisheries Commission police who caught him scraping over the line. More recently, when Elmer W. Evans Jr., the 41-year-old president of the Tangier Watermen's Association, was a teen-ager, Virginia police pursued Smith Islanders, allegedly engaged in illegal oyster dredging, clear up to Tylerton.

"There were 25 or 30 men with rifles behind every pole" aimed at the interlopers, Evans said. "They came to when they seen the rifles. Then they turned tail and left." The Virginians' leader said, 'You let me out of here, you'll never hear anything from me.' "

Since the early 1960s, however, peace prevailed -- until Juney Crockett arrived on the scene. "Last year, we had quite a few boats towed and that really threw the boys into an uproar," Evans said. "One guy didn't even have his scrapes overboard. After he drug his scrapes, he made a big circle to come around."

After the watermen officially requested and were denied Virginia licenses, they voted 39 to 1 to go to court. Jensen of Maryland and Douglas of Virginia discussed the problem, but no resolution could be reached. "I try not to think about it," Douglas says, retreating from earlier statements that the legal battle could revert to a shooting war if the line comes down.

"We say Maryland conserves for Virginia to waste," said Eddie Smith, vice president of the island watermen's association. Indeed, while Marylanders are barred from catching and selling succulent "sponge" crabs -- pregnant females -- Virginians can catch them in their own state and then sell them in Maryland. "You just can't take an ecological system as large as the Chesapeake and have a line drawn across and say some laws apply to one side and some to the other," said Smith.

In 1971, Smith Islanders succeeded in overturning Maryland laws limiting the state's watermen to their own counties. Then, four years ago, in the case of Seacoast v. Douglas, the Supreme Court ruled that Commissioner Douglas could not deny a foreign corporation access to the state's menhaden fish. With these precedents, Smith Islanders expect to win their case.

The weather, not the law, was the major topic of conversation here the other morning, as chilly northwest winds blew 20 to 30 knots, turning high tide to low and driving the crabs deep down in the mud. Only three scrapers ventured out where 25 to 30 normally go, at the lower limit south of Tylerton.

Wes Bradshaw, 37, burly with bleached blond hair, steered his small, flat-bottomed boat through the predawn darkness down Shanks Creek. With hand signals passed down through the generations, Bradshaw communicated from a distance with David Laird and Frederick Marshall, the other watermen.

Drawing an index finger across the throat signaled "ain't nothing here," Bradshaw explained. Fingers motioning inward meant "all the crabs you want." It was when they were well into Virginia waters that the men used the latter sign, if only once or twice. Juney Crockett was nowhere to be seen, and so the watermen ventured well below South Point, the unofficial line the Virginia lawman has drawn.

"He'd make us leave," Bradshaw said, as he picked through nets thick with eelgrass, some crabs and occasional shrimp, oysters and fish. "But it doesn't look like old Juney's coming up here today. He probably figures nobody's out."

Crockett, it so happened, was having his boat bottom painted, so the Smith Islanders had had a free, if not a fruitful, day. "If you're not up there," confirmed Crockett, "they'll go across the line."