Alberta Rough Surface reached over and shook the plastic red flowers that adorn her daughter's grave. For nearly 16 years she has come to this graveyard on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, seeking peace for the spirit of her youngest child, Candace, but peace has never come.

In 1980, Candace Rough Surface, then 18, was raped and murdered on these remote, wind-swept plains, her body dragged to a river and dumped, to be found months later. The murder remained an unsolved mystery, mostly forgotten in the white community here, mournfully recalled among the Indians, until a bitter divorce recently shook loose a long-buried secret: that two cousins, from one of the most prominent white families in town, had allegedly committed the crime.

One of the cousins has confessed and turned state's evidence. The other is about to go on trial on a charge of first-degree murder.

The tale of murder, secrecy and betrayal has brought into sharp focus age-old resentments between the whites and the Lakota (or Sioux) tribes, who have coexisted uneasily here on separate sides of the Missouri River for nearly a century.

The trial is set to begin here next week, but many Indians, Alberta Rough Surface among them, are worried that nothing will come of it, much as they are convinced that the initial investigation 16 years ago was not aggressive enough. Many whites, meanwhile, just wish the whole thing would go away. "This could tear apart our community," said Peg Wunder, a friend of the family of Nicholas Scherr, who will go on trial Tuesday.

This remote region bordering North Dakota is full of reminders of the hard relationship between Indian nations and the white settlers who moved into it and eventually took over. Sitting Bull, the great Lakota military strategist, is buried on the western bluffs of the Missouri just a few miles from town. Indian tribes from this area defeated Col. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876. Fourteen years later his 7th Cavalry returned and massacred hundreds of Indians at Wounded Knee across South Dakota southwest from here.

When Candace Rough Surface and her alleged killers were growing up, the two communities lived in different worlds. The Standing Rock reservation, a huge swath of land straddling North and South Dakota and home to 6,100 Lakota, is full of shoddily built government housing. In the tiny reservation town of Kenel, where Candace Rough Surface lived, there is not a single store. Kenel once occupied a fertile spot on the banks of the Missouri, but 45 years ago it was moved to this parched, unforgiving plain when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to build a new dam on the river. The reservation is an area of grinding poverty, where few find jobs and alcoholism has ruined many families.

Candace Rough Surface was the youngest of eight children who lived in a small but tidy house. Candy, as she was called, dropped out of high school during her sophomore year after she became pregnant and had a son, fathered by a boy from Standing Rock. At the time of her death she was working on a high school diploma. Family friends describe her as "quiet and pretty." Her mother recalled teaching her to "mind her behavior" when they shopped at the white-owned stores in town.

Nicholas Scherr, by contrast, was a child of comfortable middle-class upbringing whose family was well-known in this predominantly white town of 4,100, a hunting, fishing and trading center. His older twin brothers had participated in the 1988 Olympics, where one of them won a bronze medal for wrestling. To show their pride, Mobridge town fathers renamed the local sports arena Scherr-Howe, after their Olympic athlete and a local Native American artist, a naming designed to help bridge cultural divides. Nick Scherr, sandy-haired and muscular, was 16 years old at the time of the murder.

James Stroh II was raised in Wisconsin, but his father, who grew up in Mobridge, brought his family back to South Dakota occasionally to visit. It was during one such visit on Aug. 2, 1980, when James was 15 years old, that he went out on the town with his cousin Nick and Candace Rough Surface disappeared.

The crime must have weighed on James Stroh, for years later, he unburdened himself to his wife, confiding that he had once raped and killed a young Indian girl. It was that confession that came back to haunt Stroh -- and his cousin -- when Stroh and his wife split up in a bitter divorce. As the couple argued, Stroh's mother-in-law revealed his closely held secret to the local police in Wisconsin, providing the first accounting of what he had said happened that long-ago night. Stroh has confessed to the crime and agreed to testify against his cousin, in exchange for a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.

Candace Rough Surface's family had no knowledge of what happened to Candace after her sister, Clara, dropped her off on Main Street that evening and then quickly "lost track of her," Clara recalled recently.

According to court testimony by Stroh at a bond reduction hearing last November, he and Scherr encountered Rough Surface at the now-defunct Joker's Wild Bar, which was known for selling low-alcohol beer to local teenagers.

After a while, the three left together in Scherr's pickup truck for a party at a trailer home just north of town. They were at the party just a few minutes when someone -- Stroh in his testimony did not make clear who -- "tried something" with Rough Surface, angering her, and shortly the party broke up. As the small Indian teenager sat in the pickup between the two cousins, she struck out verbally and physically at both.

"She was threatening Nick. She knew who Nick was. She was threatening Nick by name and she said she knew who I was, a cousin, threatening us," Stroh recalled. Then Rough Surface hit both of them and this, Stroh said, sent Scherr over the edge.

"Nick slammed on the brakes and got out of the truck, came around to my side and told me we were going to do her," Stroh testified. He ordered Stroh and Rough Surface out of the pickup and hit the young woman, knocking her to the ground, then raped her. He ordered his younger, and smaller, cousin to follow suit, Stroh said, and then went to the truck and got a gun.

As Candace Rough Surface lay on the ground, barely moving, Stroh said, Scherr shot her three or four times. He then handed the gun to Stroh, who shot her once, he testified. The two cousins split a few dollars they found in the woman's purse and then chained her battered body to the back of the pickup and dragged it nearly a mile across rough knolls to the river. It was after midnight and no one was around. The next day, according to Stroh's testimony, the two boys returned to bury the evidence of their crime.

That same day James Stroh returned to Wisconsin. Alberta Rough Surface, meanwhile, notified police that her daughter was missing. For nearly 10 months nothing happened, and then a ranch hand spotted a badly decomposed body along the receding muddy banks of the river and notified authorities. An autopsy showed the young woman had been beaten, raped and shot five times in the back and head with a .22-caliber weapon. Scouring the area, police eventually found shell casings and a piece of an eyeglass frame with the name Candace Rough Surface on it.

Then the case just reached a dead end. If anyone knew more about the murder or Rough Surface's last hours, they did not come forward.

In the Indian community, there is a strong belief that the police could have pursued the case more aggressively -- and would have if a white girl had been murdered -- and that others in town must have known what happened. We "still suffer from the mentality of just another dead Indian,' " said Arvol Looking Horse, principal spiritual leader of the Lakota, noting that numerous Indian murders remain unsolved. Such skepticism motivated the Indian community and its leadership to get the Justice Department involved as an observer of the upcoming court case.

South Dakota Assistant Attorney General Robert Mayer said the state will aggressively prosecute the case and that the race of the victim and the suspects is not relevant.

In the white community, a protective silence has descended. Family members refused to discuss the case. Reed Rasmussen, Scherr's attorney, said his client will contest the charge. Scherr is free on $200,000 bond; Stroh remains in custody.

Others, while regretting that a young life ended so violently, said that too much has been made of this case on the Standing Rock reservation. "The Indians wouldn't be so upset if the accused were Indian," said Melissa O'Cull, a waitress at a local restaurant.

Alberta Rough Surface, meanwhile, said she is just hoping for a verdict that will bring her daughter's spirit some measure of peace. "I feel for his {Scherr's} mother, because I'm a mother too," the 72-year-old woman said. Then she added softly, "I just want justice for my little girl so we can all get on with our lives."

CAPTION: Friends and family of Candace Rough Surface, of the Standing Rock Lakota, gathered in December for a ceremony near site of her 1980 slaying. She was 18.