Miles Gray Jr. looked down at the charred circle in the grass at the end of his driveway, his face neutral. Early on the morning of April 6, a burning cross stood in the spot while Gray and his family slept. It was a less-than-welcoming gesture for Tilghman Island's sole black family.

"It's not like my kids are riding their bikes up and down the highway," said Gray, 38. "I'm not frequenting their beer taverns, and my wife is not trying to socialize with anybody. They don't even have to see us except when I'm going to work. All we want to do is mind our business."

He shrugged and gestured around him. "Why should we leave? This is a little piece of heaven."

The sunset in Gray's back yard was awash of pink and blue light glittering on the silver waters of the Chesapeake Bay. A rabbit hopped tentatively across the shadowed, just-mown lawn. In black silhouette, a tire swing dangled from a tree.

The Grays, a family of five, like their secluded waterfront home on this claw of an island in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore. They have three bedrooms, 2 1/2 acres of land, an above-ground pool, and a monthly rent of only $500. The house is located a half-mile from the highway, shielded by trees. There are no close neighbors.

Tilghman Island, population 870, is dotted with the comfortable vacation homes of Washington area residents and the year-round homes of the watermen, most often described as "independent" types, who ply the waters of the bay for oysters and crabs.

A bright blue sign stationed just before the single drawbridge leading to the island declares it as the "Home of the Skipjacks," the United States' last commercial sailing boats. "Founded," the sign adds, "in 1659."

Last Thursday, Maryland State Police arrested three watermen and one waitress -- all in their twenties, all residents of Tilghman -- in the cross-burning incident. The four could each face up to 44 years in prison and $13,500 in fines if convicted, said state police Officer Samuel Shelly.

Shelly and Gray said the Gray family was not acquainted with the defendants.

"I wouldn't know them if I saw them," Gray said.

"Some of the people did not feel comfortable having a black family live there," Shelly said.

The residents of Tilghman Island are known as private people who are generally disinclined to talk to the police or the media, especially when it comes to embarrassing incidents such as the time last spring when someone poured sugar into the tanks of earth-movers being used to construct a sewage treatment plant. Or the problems with youths littering Kronsberg Park across from the volunteer fire department. Or the cross burning.

Mention the cross burning, and residents shake their heads. They know nothing. They would rather not get involved. They agree, they said, with the state police findings.

According to Shelly, the cross burning was "an isolated incident on the part of a few people who do not represent the bulk of people on Tilghman Island."

He said the Ku Klux Klan was not involved and that there is no evidence of any Klan activity in the area.

But while several residents have telephoned or written the Grays in the past week to express their dismay at the incident, Gray remains convinced that the Eastern Shore is, racially speaking, "the twilight zone."

"We were just naive to come here," he said, looking across the bay, while his son, Woody, 6, scampered across the yard.

The Grays sold their four-bedroom house in Virginia Beach, Va., and moved to the Eastern Shore in December. Gray, who is employed with a hotel management company, was transferred to the Tidewater Inn in Easton, 22 miles from Tilghman Island. There, he oversees a housekeeping staff of 28.

Gray said he had known little about the area. He did not know, he said, that the regional chapter of the NAACP last year targeted the Eastern Shore, where many blacks live in poverty and with little political power, as its top priority area, "a remnant of the Old South."

"I figured it was only an hour from Washington," Gray said. "I was under the impression that I was moving farther north and it would be a nice place to live. We actually thought it would be more sophisticated here than in Virginia Beach, where we never had any problems."

For the first two months, the family -- Gray, his wife Rosetta, Woody, daughter, Kimberly, 15, and Gray's father, Miles Gray Sr. -- lived in rooms at the motel. They soon learned, Gray said, that finding the sort of house they were accustomed to was difficult.

"I was concentrating on getting a staff together," Gray said, "so my wife went house-hunting. It was funny. The Realtors kept taking her to dumpy areas, rundown areas, always all-black areas.

"We finally found one nice place, near the park in Easton, and we were all primed and ready to get it. But then the Realtor told us the owner had decided he didn't want to rent to a family of five. The house had four bedrooms, but you figure it out."

The Grays rented the Tilghman Island house in February only after a hotel executive, who is white and was aware of the family's problems, accompanied Gray to a meeting with a rental agent at the site. "We fell in love with the place," Gray said.

His feelings about the area, however, gradually became less enthusiastic.

"I got a lot of funny glares," Gray said, "Not stares, but glares. I'd stop in at one of the little country stores here. The guys would be talking and laughing and I'd walk in to get a pack of cigarettes on my way to work. I'd be in a suit, because that's what I happen to wear to work. Well, the place would get deadly quiet when I'd walk in, and I'd hear a little voice somewhere in the background say, 'What's he doing in a suit?' "

The first such encounter occurred about two weeks after he moved to Tilghman, Gray said. After that, he and his family started doing all their shopping in St. Michaels, a resort town about 12 miles away, and in Easton.

The eight-foot-tall cross was discovered the morning after the burning, a Sunday, when Gray's father noticed it while walking Taffy, the family's golden retriever.

"At first, I thought, 'Let me just ignore this,' " Gray said. "But then I figured, next time, they'll be at my front door.

"Hey," he said, shaking his head, "we're back in the '60s around here, back when King was marching."

The McDaniel Country Store and Tavern is located on Rte. 33, 10 miles from Tilghman. It was there, state police say, in the tan-colored frame building with the American flag out front, that the four defendants met and drank before allegedly paying their visit to the Grays.

Police have identified them as Venessa Parks, 25; Patrick Murphy, 23; Gilbert Tyler, 23, and Sheldon Mister, 23. Shelly of the state police described the foursome as friends. He said each was charged with one count of cross burning, three counts of breaking and entering a boat, one count of theft over $300, one count of malicious destruction of property and two counts of conspiracy.

The four allegedly broke into a boat to get material for the cross and allegedly discussed burning a cross on the Gray property several times over a period of several weeks, Shelly said.

At the tavern Saturday, a mustachioed man wearing a camouflage-print cap, who identified himself only as the tavern owner, refused to discuss the incident. "I'd better not say anything," he said. "It's different when it's your customers."

At the Bay Hundred Restaurant near the drawbridge, a coworker who refused to give his name said that Venessa Parks has worked there as a bartender for the past five months.

"It came as a shock to me when she was arrested," he said. "She seemed like such a conservative young lady. She's low-key, keeps to herself. She's not a wild partier."

Parks, the only one of the four still held at the Talbot County Jail in Easton, has been unable to post her $15,000 bond. Neither she nor the three men charged in the case could be reached for comment. A woman who answered the telephone at the home of Sheldon Mister slammed the receiver down as soon as she was told a reporter was calling.

But in another brief telephone interview, a woman who identified herself as the mother of defendant Gilbert Tyler said her son is "not prejudiced."

"I don't know that he did it," she said, "but if he did, I'm sure it was a prank. I have no doubt that he wouldn't do anything malicious. It must have been the drinking -- if he did it. I didn't even know about it until I read it in the newspapers. I think everybody should let the whole thing quieten down."

Gray said he has mixed feelings about the possibility of the defendants going to prison for burning the cross.

"In all sincerity, I'm not happy to see anybody go to jail," he said. "I wish the whole thing could've been avoided. I don't want to devastate anybody's life. I'm just hoping this will let everybody know -- 'Why don't you just knock it off?' We're not leaving."

Since the cross burning, Gray said, his 6-year-old son, a first grader at a school in Easton, has raised some troubling questions.

"He's a very bright kid," Gray said. "He wanted to find out why would somebody do this? He asked me, 'What have we done?' I said, 'Woody, we haven't done anything.'

"I tried to stay away from the racial thing," he said. "I want to try to keep him from looking at things as black and white. I said there were a few bad people who were trying to frighten us. To be honest, I haven't really explained it to him. How do you explain something like this to a 6-year-old? In Virginia Beach, his best friend was this blond kid who came and woke him up every morning, and then they played a little Pac-Man and ate their cream of wheat, and walked to the bus together . . . . "

Gray sat on the couch in his spacious living room and looked out through the expanse of glass. "Look at that sunset," he said. "We don't want to bother anybody. All we want to do is enjoy this place."

In his hand, he held a card he received last week from a Tilghman Island resident. It said: " . . . All the people on Tilghman are not ignorant bigots and cowards. I'm the woman whom you encountered walking down your drive with a black dog. You were bringing your son home from school. Maybe someday, you will bring him to tea."