It was a clear, still evening a year ago, with plenty of daylight left. Esequiel Hernandez Jr., just turned 18, guided his herd of 43 goats over this rugged terrain near the Mexican border, a lanky youth toting an old .22 rifle.

Suddenly four strange men appeared: U.S. Marines on a secret drug surveillance detail, armed with M-16s.

What happened next may be forever in dispute. But when it was over, Hernandez lay dead, fatally shot by a Marine corporal, and this close-knit community of 100 people alongside the Rio Grande was beginning a long fight -- still not won -- to find answers to their questions about the tragedy.

Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) has launched a congressional inquiry into the shooting, providing what residents see as perhaps the last hope for a full airing of the case. But no matter what Smith finds, a lot of resentment already has built up here since the fatal shots were fired.

"The community is still outraged, hurt and still frightened," said the Rev. Melvin LaFollette, an Episcopal priest who belongs to the Redford Committee for Justice, formed to protest the May 20, 1997, shooting. "When you send armed spies into the midst of a populated community and start shooting people, it's going to take a while to get over it, especially when the government refuses to admit responsibility or guilt."

The Hernandez case has come to symbolize the perils of bringing armed soldiers to the U.S. border with Mexico. In so doing, it has called into question the drug-fighting strategy that sent the Marines into this remote desert community of hills, alfalfa fields and long-entrenched families of mostly Mexican descent.

Because of the shooting -- described by critics as the first slaying of a U.S. citizen by a U.S. on American soil since Ohio National Guardsmen killed four Kent State University students during a demonstration in 1970 -- all ground troops involved in the drug-fighting effort along the border were pulled from patrol work last July by the Pentagon.

But Congress is considering sending them back, which fills residents here with fresh anxiety. Rep. James A. Traficante (D-Ohio) won approval on the House floor last month for an amendment to the defense spending bill that would send as many as 10,000 troops to the Mexican border to help other law enforcement agencies intercept drug smugglers.

Protests arose immediately from Texas House members, who said the measure would make the state look like Berlin during the Cold War. In reply, Traficant said that although his constituents live far from Mexico, "80 percent of the heroin and cocaine going up their arms and noses comes from the border."

Their clash was part of a debate that has raged for years without resolution as the United States seeks to gain control over a 1,900-mile border with Mexico, balancing the need for increased commerce and humane treatment of Mexican laborers against a struggle to keep out the flood of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

The Marine Corps has long contended that the shooting here was in self-defense, that Hernandez had fired his rifle twice in the direction of the Marines and was about to shoot a third time when Cpl. Clemente Banuelos opened fire. But many residents here feel that Hernandez's death has never received the attention from the news media or the federal government that it deserved. And, as time has passed, and both state and federal grand juries declined to return indictments against the Marines, they have become convinced no one is going to take the blame.

In announcing his plan to investigate the case and serve subpoenas on the Justice and Defense for information, Rep. Smith described Hernandez as "an innocent young American . . . killed by his government," adding that "the public has never been told the full story."

Among other things, Smith said no one at the scene offered first aid to Hernandez and he wants to know why. In addition, Smith said he will ask who decided to position the Marines in the Redford area in the first place and how they were trained to deal with residents.

"Did someone really believe that a youth with a .22 rifle had decided to conduct a frontal assault on a team of U.S. Marines?" he asked. "Did they think their only option was to shoot him?"

Here in Redford, an isolated farming community 200 miles southeast of El Paso and a long, winding 20 miles from Presidio, the nearest settlement, such decisions made by a faraway federal government now seem to carry a personal stake.

A collection of old adobe homes surrounded by farming equipment and horse pastures, the community was first known as "El Polvo," Spanish for "the dust," and is linked to the Mexican town of Mulato, just across the river. Residents here have not forgotten Esequiel Hernandez, a quiet youth with a quick smile who was known as "Junior" or "Skeech" and was well-regarded by his teachers at Presidio High School, where he was completing his sophomore year. They believe there is no good explanation for his death, and they believe the federal government has tried to keep the incident quiet.

"There is nothing we can do," said Postmaster Rosendo Evar, whose family has owned the same farm here since 1876. "We didn't know the Marines were down here. The Border Patrol brought them here. They should have familiarized themselves with the local people."

Evar, who was also then the local school bus driver then, last saw Hernandez the afternoon of his death, as he drove the young man home from school. "He was always a nice kid," Evar said.

What happened later that evening, at about 6:30 p.m., is a source of constant sorrow for the Hernandez family and their neighbors. "They {government and military officials} just wanted it to pass over. It was just a Mexican kid killed; let the people forget about it, let this thing die," said family spokesman Margarito Hernandez, 29, Esequiel's oldest brother.

Margarito Hernandez believes Esequiel was carrying the old rifle, as he always did, to protect his goats from coyotes and rattlesnakes. He said his brother was only 300 yards from his home when he was fatally wounded, and that his father, Esequiel Sr., a farm worker, was chopping wood outside when he heard what he thought was a gunshot and began to have "a weird feeling."

LaFollette, the priest, said that at the death scene, the Marines were dressed in camouflage gear and had blackened faces, making it difficult for the youth to have seen them clearly. But Jack Zimmermann, a Houston attorney and former Marine who defended Banuelos, said important facts have become lost. "There is no question, {the Marines} know he saw them," he said. "He looked right at them, raised his rifle deliberately, and shot twice at them. No one has ever contended he knew they were Marines, but he knew they were people."

There also are taped radio transmissions of the Marines' conversations with others about being fired on, he said.

Supporters of the Marines' effort on the border suggest that the Hernandez case is being used by political groups who believe the border should remain open and who regularly protest the activities of the U.S. Border Patrol. Zimmermann said that this has been "a horrible experience" for Banuelos, who is assigned to Camp Pendleton in California and is planning to leave the military soon.

"He did what his country asked him to do, and he has been accused of committing murder," said Zimmermann, who also gained attention during the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff with federal authorities as one of two outsiders allowed to negotiate face-to-face with sect leader David Koresh. "I've said all along that no criminal conduct occurred, and the military investigation concurred, and the state grand jury concurred, and the federal grand jury concurred."

But LaFollette and others here will never be convinced, describing the situation as "a big coverup." In they question why none of the investigating agencies has ever released a ballistics report on Hernandez's weapon to back up the Marines' contention they were fired on. The local district attorney, Albert Valadez, has refused over the months to reveal the ballistics results, saying they are evidence in a continuing investigation.

LaFollette also wonders why the autopsy reports show the young man "had to be facing away from {the Marines} from the angle the bullet entered him. . . . We think they used him for target practice.

"Toward the federal government in general, this has always been a law-abiding, patriotic place," he said. But now many Redford residents, he said, are paranoid about who is watching them go about their business. "I couldn't tell you now I'm not sure there's nobody looking in my window at me," LaFollette said.

The anniversary of Hernandez's death was marked here with a memorial Mass at the local Roman Catholic church. A tree has been planted in his honor at the high school. In the modest family home, his room remains untouched, with one major difference.

Not long after Esequiel was killed, his younger brother, Noel, 11, burst into the bedroom, sobbing with grief, and ripped the Marine recruiting poster from the wall. Esequiel had been thinking about joining the Marines.

"He couldn't stand to look at it anymore," Margarito Hernandez said. CAPTION: Outside Redford, Tex., house, Maria de Luz Hernandez and Esequiel Hernandez Sr. show picture of their son, Esequiel Jr., 18, fatally shot by a Marine Corps anti-drug patrol while tending his goats near the Mexican border.