Siege-weary residents clustered at the doors of their houses to watch the first convoy of traffic, civilian or military, to make it in or out of this small town since an ambush by U.S.-backed anti-Sandinista rebels cut the roads almost three days before.

The latest siege appeared to be over by last Wednesday, but few of the people in this town of 11,000 wedged against the Honduran border saw it as other than a brief reprieve.

This was the third time in a month that the only road here has been cut for days at a time; the third time since December that rebels of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force under the command of Pedro Pablo Ortiz Centeno, a former Nicaraguan National Guard sergeant known as "Suicide," have launched a major push in the area.

In the capital, the end of the fighting here and opening of the road was presented as a great victory. "Beasts on their way back to Honduras" read the banner headline on one of Friday's Sandinista dailies.

While most of the rest of Nicaragua talks about war but lives in peace, this province of Nueva Segovia is deep in the middle of fighting that is part feud, part civil war and partly what the Sandinistas claim it is, outside aggression. By official count, the Sandinistas said they had lost 23 men in the latest fighting here and killed 95 "counterrevolutionaries," as the rebels are called. The Sandinistas estimated that the "contra" force that has made Jalapa its strategic target numbers 12,000 troops.

Suicide and some of his commanders leading those troops were straightforward about their objectives for this area when they were interviewed in March just before the current push.

In the center of a broad valley, Jalapa has three of the few air strips in this rugged region dominated by mountains and timberland. Its road puts it a 20-minute drive from the Honduran border. If Jalapa could be taken and held for even a matter of days the arms that now have to be carried in by the rebels on mules or on their backs could be brought in by air and truck in large quantities.

If Jalapa could be held longer, Suicide's people said, then Nueva Segovia might be declared liberated territory and international support openly solicited from Honduras, the United States and other countries.

Last week's fighting reached within two miles of Jalapa, at a settlement known as El Carbon easily visible east of here. In one action last Sunday, the rebels ambushed a military convoy that included a group of U.S. journalists. But the rebels never attacked the town itself. Rather, the action seemed a probe, another strike to wear down resistance in the region.

With the fighting over for the moment and the road open, the people here rushed to pick up what could be salvaged of normal life for however short a time.

Men and women in broad straw hats went back to work in the rich tobacco fields that surround the town. Children trudged off to school. Even the ban on beer sales was lifted.

Residents were exhausted from several nights of dusk-to-dawn "revolutionary vigilance," which consisted of sitting all night in their doorways with whistles to blow if strangers passed. Now they sat nodding passively over their bottles in what passes for a local hotel. A juke box full of American music played "Blondie's" and "The Tide is High" as a crude strobe light flashed on an empty dance floor.

The little hospital, with its new wing built by the Sandinistas to accommodate 45 beds in an emergency, was completely full last Monday, according to its 23-year-old medical student director. By Wednesday, when the first cars arrived, the dead and the seriously wounded had all been flown out.

But the tension is relentless. Distant gun shots mingle with the crowing of roosters at first light almost every morning. Always there are men with guns around, most often the militia troops in their ragged brown shirts standing among other peasants in the fields, or bivouacked in the huge clapboard tobacco barns down the road.

Some of the militia were staking out the dirt highway, where jeeps and trucks race past in an attempt to make a more difficult target for rebel snipers or mortar fire from the hills. A fog of dust hangs constantly in the air when traffic is moving.

Jalapa's walls are covered with posters and pages torn from Sandinista newspapers recalling atrocities committed by the deposed dictatorship and its soldiers, some of whom, like Suicide, now lead the rebels.

Sixty-one year old Lucila Serrano looks out on these walls from a house with a picture of Nicaraguan-American baseball pitcher Denis Martinez taped above the hearth. She is obviously frightened. "Nobody knows what they would do with us," said Serrano, who fled here with her family from their small farm in the mountains to get away from the rebels about four months ago. "They would take our lives," she said.

"The people who are here are here to stay," said American Maryknoll missionary Lisa Fitzgerald. But Jalapa's vulnerability is obvious to anyone looking up at the surrounding hills. The trench that encircles the town and is manned every night by men, women and sometimes children as young as 13 does not instill a lot of confidence.

Even Fitzgerald, an active nun who is a special target of the contras and has been threatened by name on their clandestine radio station, makes nervous jokes about how she and the other revolutionary priests and nuns here are determined to finish off the vegetables in their little garden before the rebels can come and get them.

According to 1st Lt. Nestor Lopez, who gave reporters a short official briefing, regular troops from the 22,000 member Sandinista Popular Army are deployed in this area along with units from the militias, the Interior Ministry, the border patrol and a 1,200-man battalion of reservists from the distant city of Leon.

The battle last Sunday began with mortar fire from across the Honduran border on Sandinista outposts at a farm called El Porvenir and the small town of Teotecancinte. Lopez denied that the Sandinistas took the politically volatile step of responding with their own artillery fire across the frontier, but civilians and one soldier who were at El Porvenir said they did. The civilians added that a jeep with as many as seven contras in it was rumored to have been hit on the Honduran side.

Lopez portrayed the rebels as nothing but "genocidal" ex-guardsmen operating entirely out of Honduran territory. Here and in other towns of the region even Sandinista sympathizers said they believed there were a number of people among them who back the rebels and a much larger group that would rather remain neutral in the fight. Neutrality, however, is no longer an option.

In March and April, when reporters traveled in this province with the rebels, much of the countryside away from a narrow corridor surrounding the region's few roads appeared either deserted or populated by rebel sympathizers.

Since then, attempts to establish rebel "task forces" much deeper inside Nicaragua appear to have failed, and a "southern front" made up of other rebel groups near the Costa Rican border has had difficulty establishing itself.

People in Ocotal, on a main highway southwest of here, say the contras are moving persistently closer. The Sandinista Defense Committees have mounted a drive to dig fortifications.

As the fighting ranges over the countryside old animosities between tough mountain families and even entire villages have been caught up in the war, inflamed by it and fueled by the quantities of arms that the Soviets and Socialist countries provide to the Sandinistas and the United States government gives to the rebels through covert conduits.

Estela Calderon Pineda, 23, comes from a settlement to the east of here called La Ceiba. She lives in Jalapa now with a group of about 25 other refugees in an old dirt floor "dance hall" filled with cooking smoke and appropriately called "The Cave." As she stood clutching a naked baby she rambled on like a character from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, dating all recent events in her life from the day her brother's head "was taken apart" by a contra grenade "eight days short of six months ago."

La Ceiba is one of about 60 cooperatives formed by the Sandinistas in the area. The neighboring town of Terrerio was the scene of extensive National Guard recruiting under the Somoza dictatorship.

"Quite a few of our friends are with the contra," said Calderon Pineda, "and cousins." She knew the man who killed her brother as "the son of Tivurcio."

Dark circles around her eyes, her belly distended, the mother of "five children, three of them alive," remembered how an old man who had fought with Augusto Sandino against U.S. Marines in these mountains more than 50 years ago had to be hidden during one "contra" attack so he would not in his senility start talking about those days and be killed for his ancient allegiance.

After her brother was killed Calderon Pineda and 50 other people from La Ceiba were abducted in one of this war's stranger common practices. Church officials say that as many as 350 peasants have been kidnaped in Jalapa parish since the beginning of the year. The Sandinistas say this is forced recruitment, the contras that it is a "cover" for the families of men who want to join them.

Her husband is a government soldier, and people knew it. But her mother told the contras that this was just gossip. Eventually Calderon Pineda and others escaped.

Asked why all this had happened, the young woman seemed to have little sense of cause and spoke only of effects. The people of Terrerio were contras because when the Sandinistas gave them arms they gave the arms to the rebels. Why? "It's that all those who were from Terrerio were contras. "