Looking across the muddy cornfields nearly ripe for a plow's edge, joyce Pearson tried to imagine living inside a town. She rested her bare feet on the farmhouse steps and then fixed hergaze on a groundhog burrowing in the garden.

"Lord, come back in 20 years and see what's here," said Pearson, 35, a kindly woman attuned to the rhythm of nature, not politics. "Everything is closing in. . . . I don't know, I just don't know." For 14 years, she said, she has watched the landscape change as her husband Joseph has worked 195 acres of somebody else's farmland to dig out a living.

Off in the horizon to the south, just past the edge of this farmland, is the border of a Virginia town that doesn't want to stop growing: Leesburg. With the steely determination of a rebel soldier taking on a battalion, the town is arming itself to take, legally, 9,825 acres of Loudoun County.

Without fanfare, in what one town official called a "sneak attack," the Leesburg Town Council last week unanimously adopted an ordinance initiating annexation of 15.4 square miles of land around the town, quadrupling its size. If Leesburg succeeds, it will have grown from a 41-acre dot on the map in 1758 to a 12,225-acre town larger in size than some Virginia cities.

Beyond Leesburg's present borders, fields fold into deep rich soil. But everywhere there are signs that the town has been preparing for annexation for years.

East of town, near the Potomac River, a new town-owned $7-million water treatment plant capable of withdrawing 2.5 million gallons of water a day--twice the amount used by Leesburg--will be completed by June. Southeast of town, a 10-year-old sewage treatment plant will soon be redesigned for $7 million, doubling its capacity and allowing Leesburg to treat 2.5 million gallons of sewage a day by 1985.

And south of Leesburg, the town-owned Municipal Airport soon will be studied by an outside consultant to determine how Leesburg can attract business-oriented aircraft and light industry to the small field.

"Annexation isn't exactly something you go around broadcasting," said Jeffrey H. Minor, assistant town manager. But keeping anything secret in Lessburg is nearly impossible, Minor has come to realize.

Just as he was explaining to luncheon guests in a downtown Leesburg restaurant that the town's annexation effort is actually "a suit--we are suing the county and even if we agree it still goes to annexation court," Loudoun County Administrator Phil Bolen got up from his seat at a table directly behind Minor's and waved.

It wasn't their first such encounter. One night after work six months ago, Minor said, he sat in a downtown restaurant reading a book, "Annexation in Virginia," when Bolen walked in with a few associates from the county building down the street. "What are you reading?" they asked. "Nothing," Minor tried to say. Someone lifted up the book.

That was around the time the feud between Leesburg and Loudoun County started intensifying, after decades of sometimes bitter rivalry. Last July, a county-appointed committee of 20 citizens produced the Leesburg Area Management Plan (LAMP), which generally calls for zoning that would allow one to three units an acre on land around Leesburg. The town, however, wanted more dense zoning, favoring development with 4 to 12 units per acre.

"You could call that the last straw," said Leesburg Mayor G. Dewey Hill Jr. "There was no use hassling this issue back and forth. When Loudoun County thinks of densities, it thinks of rural densities. . . . We see more urban densities around the town. They resent us growing, always have, because of this rivalry."

But the way Loudoun County Administrator Bolen sees it, "There is not going to be any flashy quick-fix to settle this. It's going to take long negotiations if the town wants to grow at a faster rate than the county anticipated because we provide schools and health and social services for Leesburg and it could put a hardship on the county."

What surprised Bolen about the annexation move was the "size and scope" of the town's proposal. In the past when expansion of Leesburg has been discussed, it has been confined to a so-called "urban limit line" taking in about 7,400 acres of land, Bolen said. The annexation plan approved last week, however, goes beyond that line by 2,425 acres.

"It is fair to say that the county certainly has been anticipating some annexation move because Leesburg is interested in paying off loans and borrowing money to repay its debts for water and sewage plants," Bolen said. "There is a propensity to grow at a rate that will pay off the debts of the town. But what we want to do is reach some balance."

Reacting to the annexation move, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Monday passed a resolution asking Leesburg to give the county the "rationale and specific facts" about how town and county residents would benefit. The board pointed out that the proposed annexation involves a land area equivalent to six Sterling Parks or the city of Alexandria and could accommodate 30,000 to 50,000 persons at a density of less than two units an acre.

The issue of annexation has been debated from the courthouse square to the corner store. It always comes down to one question: What if Leesburg outgrows its borders again and wants to become a city?

Leesburg officials, in the tradition of the town's namesake "Lighthorse" Harry Lee, the Revolutionary War cavalry officer, stand their ground on that one and refuse to permanently renounce that right under Virginia law. But thoughts of cityhood wouldn't mature for decades, Town Council members say, especially since the town's population is only 8,300. And, they argue, only about 1,750 people now live in the area Leesburg wants to annex.

Yet Loudoun County officials look to the future and fear the worst: If Leesburg ever becomes a city, it would be removed from the county's tax base and all the annexed land would be lost. Now county property owners--including those who live in Leesburg as long as it remains a town--pay a property tax of $1.02 per $100 of assessed property value, and Leesburg residents pay an additional 17 cents per $100 of assessed value.

"Certainly our ultimate fear is that Leesburg will become a city," said Thomas S. Dodson of Middleburg, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "The financial ramifications of this haven't been fully explored or calculated, but it's something we must face. This is a classic dilemma that counties are finding themselves in all over Virginia.

"It's almost as if the town has backed itself into the position of having to grow to accommodate the increased debt of building the water plant," Dodson said. "The town has spent a great deal of money and needs to spread it out over a larger population base. I think some orderly annexation is necessary for the viability of Leesburg. But the density question certainly must be addressed."

On town planning blueprints, state routes crisscross Leesburg, all tying into Route 7, the town's lifeline to Washington. The quiet brick streets in the historic downtown area seemed comfortably locked somewhere in the 19th century, residents say, until Route 7 was widened to four lanes in the 1960s. That effectively sliced up the town into pockets of development, strips of small shopping centers and roadside stores ringing the edges of town. Beyond that sprawl, the skyline opens to farmland, mostly operated by tenant farmers working for an assortment of foreign investors who have bought land around Leesburg.

"If I was interested in developing my land, I would be happy about the annexation," said Henry Stowers, a one-time county supervisor who farms 440 acres south of Leesburg. "I'm not. This piece of property is probably the only large one I know of that isn't owned by a foreign interest around Leesburg. We've got Belgians, Greeks, Dutch--a real conglomeration. I can just see my taxes doubling if the town doesn't assess agricultural land at a lower rate, like the county."

But perhaps because Leesburg already sells water and sewer service to most of the residents in the annexation area, there has been practically no citizen protest over the plan. In the Country Club subdivision, a development of split-level homes and ramblers in the $90,000 price range that would be annexed, 1,400 residents are paying a 50 percent surcharge on water and sewage services because they live south of Leesburg. After annexation, they would pay no surcharge.

"What you see around Leesburg didn't just develop out of nowhere," said assistant town manager Minor. "It's feeding off the town, but we don't have any control over the development. Look around the area and you see the same thing. . . . You don't know when you are going into Fairfax City or Manassas because there is so much sprawl."

Inside Leesburg Town Manager John Niccolls' office, the battle plans for annexation have been drafted with town officials and $30,000 has been bankrolled for legal costs. The annexation ordinance passed last week now goes to the Virginia Commission on Local Government, which will study the annexation for up to six months, issue a report and act as an intermediary between Leesburg and Loudoun County. Then Leesburg can file a petition in Circuit Court for appointment of a three-judge annexation court, which decides the issue and sets the boundaries.

Through the centuries, Leesburg's town leaders have grasped land beyond their borders four times. In 1800, the 41-acre town decided to expand its horizons by annexation and added 143 acres. By 1906 the town had added another 118 acres, and in 1958 it added 1,719 acres. And last year, property owners outside Leesburg petitioned to join the town, adding 379 more acres.

This time, however, the annexation battleground has widened, taking in a Civil War battlefield and graveyard east of Leesburg. At the end of a rambling dirt road is the Ball's Bluff Cemetery, a graveyard for 14 Union soldiers and the smallest national cemetery in the country--but a national cemetery so victimized by vandals that no U.S. flag is flown.

"I want to save this battleground from development and bring it into the town . . . without another war between the states," said town councilwoman Marylou Hill.

"What we're talking about is controlling our own destiny."