The gait is country lawman, slow and even like he owns the town of Middleburg, shoulders rolling below his hat as he steps around a puddle in the parking lot at the Safeway.

Charles Craun eases a foot onto the rubber mat and the door sweeps open. He pauses a moment, then pivots, eyes panning. Mercedes, Volvos, pickups in the lot. Two men in dirty clothes on a corner. Traffic slow and steady. He steps inside.

"Hello, Mr. Chief!" calls one of two little girls at the gumball machine.

Craun looks down and a smile breaks: "Well, hello there girls." He reaches into his pocket, hands them each a penny, pats their heads. Then the corners of his mouth droop, and the intensity is back, lowering over his face like a window shade. He heads down the aisle past the candy and cigarettes.

Craun is the law in Middleburg, chief of a force that included two others until this month, when one of his deputies left to take up nursing. And though there isn't much crime in exclusive Middleburg, Craun has developed the special finesse needed in a town where at the Safeway, for instance, you can spot a woman in riding togs paying for groceries with a check while behind her, a woman waits to pay with food stamps.

At 63, this former Chevrolet salesman has been on the city force for 15 years, has been its chief for 10. He is known around town as "Jeep," though neither because of his girth, which is sizable, nor because of his strength, which is implicit, but because 30 years ago some friends decided he resembled a dog called the Jeep in Popeye cartoons.

Grandson of a tenant farmer, son of a state highway man, native of Middleburg, Jeep Craun has become something of a folk legend in his 398-square-acre territory:

"Absolutely fearless," says Mayor Loyal McMillin.

"Kinda like Andy of Mayberry with a gun," says Rich Hovey, the other town cop.

"A great PR man," says Dave Simpson, the Loudoun County sheriff's deputy who patrols Middleburg.

"Cute," says Dona Rothermel, a waitress at the Coach Stop diner on Washington Street, the town's main drag.

Of himself, Jeep says he's "a family man, husband for 36 years, father of two nice children and five nice grandchildren;" a member of the Lions, the Masons, the American Legion; a former scoutmaster and PTA member.

"No one special," he says. "Just a man trying to keep the peace."

In Middleburg, keeping the peace means breaking up an occasional fight at the Cafe le Rat, making sure no one tampers with the town's water tower or its water treatment plant.

It means accompanying local merchants to the bank with their day's take and setting up a radar trap for an hour or more every day.

In fact, writing traffic tickets takes much of Craun's time, and the only picture of him in sight at headquarters shows Chief Craun writing a ticket.

But once in a while something big pops. Just this month -- for the first time in Craun's law enforcement career -- a bank in Middleburg was robbed.

Craun had taken the day off to Christmas shop in Leesburg when two men -- one carrying a .357 magnum revolver, the other a sawed-off shotgun -- held up the Farmers & Merchants National Bank. A teller hit the alarm and county deputy Simpson and town deputy Hovey responded.

Gunfire resounded in Middleburg, and a bullet came so close to Simpson's head that he was treated for a scalp burn. Tires squealed east across Rte. 50 in a high-speed chase.

Chief Craun, meanwhile, looking for a microwave oven, encountered a county deputy friend of his. "He told me I'd better get on home, that there were bullets flying all over town," Craun says.

So Jeep Craun beat it back home, but not before two men were caught in a roadblock and taken to the county jail 20 miles away in Leesburg, where all of Middleburg's detainees have been housed since the town's jail was closed in 1974.

The Middleburg jail used to be in a basement room in the firehouse. When the police abandoned the space, Iva's Beauty Shop moved in.

The firehouse, having been replaced with a newer one at the edge of town, is now The Fat Cat, a boutique selling cat pillows and Garfield likenesses and general items suited to the kitty craze.

Craun carries a .38 police special in his holster, but says he's never fired a shot at anyone.

The joke around town is that he qualifies to carry the handgun only with the aid of a ".38 caliber pencil," the point of which is used to stick holes in the bullseye from close range. But a gun is not always a policeman's best weapon.

Simpson recalls "The Case of the Mad Gunner" in the late 1970s. A woman named Bessie Glass owned a boarding house off Washington Street and rented rooms to two men, one in his 20s, one in his 70s.

Simpson says the older man was infatuated with 62-year-old Bessie, who had given the younger boarder the status of a son.

Apparently jealous of Bessie's fondness for the young man, the old boarder got drunk one night and walked into the parlor, blasting away with a .22 caliber rifle. The wounded Bessie ran into the street.

"All of a sudden there was a call over the radio that there was a woman dead in the street and a man in the boarding house shooting out the windows," Simpson recalls.

"Within a few minutes we had all kinds of officers surrounding the house, the SWAT team too."

Then Jeep Craun rolled onto the scene, got out of his car, walked in that slow, easy, lawman gait to the steps of the house.

"That you in there, John?" the chief called.

"That you out there, Mr. Jeep?"

"Yep, John. Now, why don't you come on out here and stop giving us so much trouble?"

John P. Kendle went quietly to jail. He later was convicted of murdering Bessie Glass and is serving a life sentence in Virginia's state penitentiary.

Jeep went home to bed. The next day, Middleburg was quiet.