Farmers on the edge of cities know that sometimes it takes only a random event, a minor setback, to signal the end of the life they know.

It might be the freak hailstorm that flattens the grain crop. The lone surveyor who's the first sign of subdivisions. Or the tinny-sounding pops Robert Cline heard in his pasture on the Fourth of July, when somebody shot his cow.

It was about 4 a.m. when Cline, 57, walked across the road from his house near Libertytown in northern Frederick County for the morning milking, a rare quiet time when he says, "I thank the Lord for another day." But that morning, as he climbed the gate to the pasture, it wasn't just Cline, the Lord and the cows.

"First I thought it was kids throwing firecrackers, out trying to scare them," he said.

On the road, across from the herd of 50 Holsteins, was an unfamiliar white minivan. It rolled slowly toward him, its young male driver and passenger either not seeing him or not caring if he saw them as they passed. He'd heard the pops, but it was dark and time was wasting, so Cline shrugged it off and went to the cows.

One was having trouble getting up. When he reached it, he found its black and white hide spotted with blood and a trickle of it coming from its nose. He called the vet and the sheriff, and he felt it was no farm kid who did this.

"You're raised to respect living things on a farm," he said. "Twenty, 30 years ago I never did hear of anything like this happening."

The 3-year-old Holstein had a bullet wound in its neck and two more that shattered its shoulder, where the slugs were still lodged.

"We're going to do the maximum to find out who did this," said Harold Domer, 49, the county's animal control director. This was the second attack on cows in the county this year, he said. In March, somebody jumped the fence around a small pasture in the southern part of the county and slashed four Holsteins. One died on the spot, one was euthanized and two recovered. There have been no arrests.

Attacking an animal this way is a felony in Maryland, on the theory that "anybody who would cause injury to an animal could cause injury to a person," said Domer, a former police officer. As the county has grown and changed, the attackers could be anyone, he said. "We've become more mobile, less friendly with our neighbors; we're not courteous on the highways [or] in the grocery stores. I wouldn't discount anything."

Cline stood near his milking barn holding a half-gallon nursing bottle, feeding a newborn heifer pressed tightly against his leg.

The Clines' cows don't have names, just numbers, because "we don't want to get too attached to them," said Cline's wife, Susan. That proved wise Friday morning, when, as the sun dried the pasture dew, No. 369 limped up a ramp into the meat processor's truck headed for slaughter that day. The cow's wounds might not have killed it, but Cline couldn't risk waiting. New rules to guard against mad cow disease say that if an animal can't walk onto the meat truck itself, it can't be sold.

He'll get about $200 for the beef, about half of what he would have for a healthy cow, and he'll have to pay $1,500 or so to replace her. His insurance covers losses from storms, but he's not sure about guns.

"Guess I'm glad she's gone," he said, pushing his cap back, exposing the tan line on his forehead. "I hate to see an animal suffer like that."

Cline said dairy farmers feel besieged enough without someone targeting their cows.

Milk prices hit new highs this year but have yet to compensate for a two-year slide. Several farmers he knows sold their herds this winter, he said. "They got tired of fighting the weather, putting up with the aggravation, the shortage of help, more housing developments."

There's not much development yet in this part of the county, dotted with hilly, emerald pastures. But the signs are there: stacks of thick realty catalogues in the businesses down Route 26; ads tacked on telephone poles reading "WE BUY HOUSES." Farmers here have begun trying to save their land with trusts, easements, legal sleights of hand. But everything, Cline said, depends on what happens on the day they all expect soon, when a developer "waves a lot of money at you."

Cline's hands are beefier than the rest of him, his fingers like paddles gripping the nursing bottle. He looked at them and said, "You just don't know."

His father, 86, bought these 167 acres. Cline, his parents and his two sons live on the farm and work it together. How long that will last, Cline won't predict. When he found his cow on its knees July 4, he found himself wondering: What am I doing this for?

The heifer lowed for its mother, then folded its gangly legs beneath it for a nap. Cline watched it.

"The older I get, the more trouble I have sending them away to the auction," he said.

"You start thinking your time's not too far off, either."

Robert Cline, uncertain the cow would recover, sent it to a slaughterhouse. "Guess I'm glad she's gone," he said. "I hate to see an animal suffer."