There's not much to the town. You come upon it in the vast, yellow-brown emptiness of southern New Mexico's high desert grasslands. It's mainly just a strip of old storefronts on Highway 60, with some dusty side streets.

In a 40-mile radius of Quemado you might find 500 people, about half of them ranchers living like pioneers on the plains and in the foothills, miles from any neighbor. The rest live in town, in trailer homes and faded stucco bungalows amid the tumbleweeds and pinon trees.

The sheriff, Cliff Snyder, said it used to be a peaceful place in its lonesome way, before all the killings. Now there's fear in the air, like a foul wind.

Who murdered Gary and Judy Wilson? It's a mystery. They disappeared in November 1995 and turned up eight months later, so many bones in the woods. Who shoved Gilbert Stark into a 20-foot well and closed the cover in '96? Who shot the elderly Clark couple and their daughter in '97? Who put a bullet in the heart of James Carroll, 59, as he stood in his corral just north of town one autumn day last year? The sheriff doesn't know.

He and the state police said they are convinced the cases aren't related. They were random eruptions of murder where murder used to be rare, Snyder said. He has no clear explanation for it. All of the victims lived in the countryside around Quemado, about 125 miles southwest of Albuquerque. Before the Wilsons were slain, no one had died by another's hand in this part of sprawling Catron County in nearly a decade.

And no one wants to be next. In a swath of America where gun control means hitting what you're aiming at, a lot of folks are packing iron. They're propping shotguns and rifles beside their beds; they're driving with pistols on the front seats of their pickups. The sheriff said he doesn't mind. This is the rural West, he pointed out, and guns are a heritage.

"We're raised with them," said Snyder, 42. He shrugged. "If I pull over a vehicle, I figure they're armed, if they live in this county."

At El Sarape Cafe on Quemado's main street, Irene Jaramillo, 43, keeps a .22-caliber semiautomatic on a shelf near the griddle. One morning last week, Paul Strand, 67, who owns a horse ranch south of town, was sipping coffee in the cafe with his wife, and holding forth on the subject of their firearms.

"I sleep with a Colt .45 under my pillow," he said. "I have a loaded assault rifle beside the bed, a Russian-type, ready to roll. And a sawed-off shotgun next to that, loaded, legal, but just barely, in terms of the barrel length."

Across the street, Carl Geng, who is in his sixties, runs the Allison Motel with his wife. They also own a ranch outside of town. Geng said he thinks he knows the culprit in one of the homicide cases. "I've got a .38," he said, gesturing to his truck in the parking lot. "He sets one foot on my ranch, I'll blow his head off."

The sheriff said he and the state police think most or all of the victims were murdered by acquaintances with whom they had personal disputes. As for suspects, investigators have only "theories," he said.

It's a crime in New Mexico to carry a concealed loaded weapon in a public place, but legal for anyone 21 or older to carry one openly, no permit necessary. James Clark, a Vietnam veteran, started packing two handguns after his parents, William Clark, 84, and Pearl Clark, 74, were slain in 1997 along with his sister, Sharron Hutson, 44. Folks in Quemado are used to seeing him in town with a .45-caliber Colt Peacemaker on his right hip and a .40-caliber semiautomatic in a shoulder holster.

"Which is fine," said Irene Jaramillo's husband, Jimmy, who is one of Snyder's deputies. "I told him, 'As long as I can see them.' "

James Clark and his wife, Elaine, 42, now live in the remote trailer home where the elderly couple was murdered. Elaine Clark, who prefers a lighter-weight .35-caliber, sat in the kitchen one day last week with her husband's heavy semiautomatic on the table in front of her. There was a loaded hunting rifle propped against the freezer by her left hand.

"We always used to brag that it was like the Old West, in the way that your house was never locked," she said. "Someone passing by, if you were gone, they could come in and get something to eat. But now it's more like the Old West the way you're always on guard. You don't walk up to my house unless I know you're coming. . . . Or you could darn well get shot."

Catron County, with just 3,000 residents, covers almost 7,000 square miles. It's bigger than Connecticut. Snyder, who was a deputy when the seven homicides occurred, was elected sheriff last year. He has an undersheriff and four deputies, including Jaramillo, who patrols the northern half of the county around Quemado. A half-dozen state troopers also work in the county. But with such a vast area to cover, it sometimes takes an hour or more to reach the scene of an emergency.

"Some of these people wouldn't call us, anyway," Snyder said. "If someone breaks in their house, needs killing, they'll take care of it. They'll call us to pick up the pieces."

James V. Blancq, the county magistrate in Quemado, said: "It took a certain kind of person to settle this country. Some of these ranchers, when their ancestors came here, this was the frontier. There were still Apaches and outlaws running around killing people. And so a gun was just as important a tool as a plow or a shovel. And to a large extent that's carried down through the years."

Blancq, a retired Navy officer, was first elected a magistrate in 1994. After he and a challenger finished tied in last year's voting, they settled the matter with a hand of seven-card stud, dealt by a state judge. Blancq won a second term of office with two pair, queens and fours. He said no one has yet come before him charged with wrongfully opening fire in a panic. "Their attitude is, they have a Second Amendment right to own a gun," Blancq said, "and no one is going to take it away from them."

The three-member Catron County Commission agreed in 1994. Worried about federal gun control legislation, the members passed a resolution in January of that year opposing "any law that would in any way deprive the citizens" here of the right to bear arms. They noted that "the culture of the citizens of Catron County is replete with examples of the traditional and historical connection of the people and firearms," and cited the necessity of "gun ownership for self defense."

Almost two years later, in November 1995, Gary Wilson, 51, and his wife, Judy, 46, vanished from their trailer home about 35 miles southwest of town. A coyote unearthed their skeletons near some Indian ruins the following August. They had been shot.

A month after the bones turned up, in September 1996, Gilbert Stark, 71, was found in a puddle of water at the bottom of his well about 35 miles southeast of town. Whoever pushed him closed the well's cover afterward, the sheriff said. Stark died of hypothermia.

William and Pearl Clark were slain in March 1997, shot in their trailer home on a desolate plain 20 miles southeast of town, along with their daughter.

The elderly couple's granddaughter, Deanna Reid, 25, who lives in town, said it is doubtful a stranger murdered them.

William Clark was a cautious man, and his wife was just like him, she said. If they were home and heard a car approaching, Pearl Clark would look out a window. If she didn't recognize the vehicle, she'd say, "Pappy, there's a car pulling up." Then she'd call out the color and ask her husband if he knew anyone who drove a car like that.

"And if he said no, he'd get up and make sure his gun was ready in his overalls," Reid said. She said her grandfather always carried a holstered .357-caliber revolver in one of his pockets when he was home. "And he'd walk out the door and meet the people before they could get out of their vehicle," she said. "Grandma would go to the back bedroom and bring out a shotgun, and she'd be ready at the window."

They were all killed with that .357, the only gun missing from the trailer after the murders.

Reid was explaining this one afternoon last week in the kitchen of her trailer home. Then she walked into her bedroom and pulled open a bureau drawer.

On top of the socks and underwear were two handguns, each a .22-caliber. One is her husband's, a revolver. Deanna Reid's weapon is a little nickel-plated semiautomatic with a pink handle. "That's my baby," she said. She sets it on the dashboard of her truck whenever she leaves home.

"I wanted a 9mm, but that's become a real popular gun around here, so I'd rather not have one," she said. "I don't want to have to have my gun checked along with everyone else's the next time someone gets shot."

CAPTION: An upside-down flag and anti-government sign, which greet visitors to Price's Catron County ranch, express the independent sentiments shared by some central New Mexico residents.

CAPTION: Catron County rancher Skip Price wears his gun in a shoulder holster at a 1994 Forest Service meeting. It is legal in New Mexico for adults to carry a gun so long as it is not concealed.