Authorities believe that the sniper who has killed nine people in the region over the past 19 days left a message at Saturday night's shooting at an Ashland restaurant, sources said, and police made an appeal last night asking that he call them.

News of the message came from Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who made a surprise appearance before reporters last night in Rockville.

"To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa [Saturday] night, you gave us a telephone number," Moose said. "We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided."

Although Moose didn't elaborate on who left the message, several sources said the chief's statement came in response to a message left by the sniper.

Moose urged the media to carry his message clearly and often.

He took no questions from reporters, so it was unclear whether the message contained anything other than a telephone number. He did not say where investigators found the message or what form the message took.

After Moose made his statement, Officer Joyce Utter, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County police, said that Moose meant what he said and that it would be intelligible to the person he was addressing.

"To the person who left the message at the Ponderosa last night, this message should make sense," she said.

If the message came from the sniper, it would mark his second known communication with police since the string of shootings began Oct. 2. Prince George's County police found a tarot card with the message "Mister Policeman, I am God," near the scene of an Oct. 7 shooting at Benjamin Trasker Middle School in Bowie. That shooting critically injured a 13-year-old boy.

Moose, who is heading the task force investigating the string ofsniper shootings that has killed nine and injured at least two since Oct. 2, said the message was found at the scene of Saturday's attack.

In that shooting, a 37-year-old man was critically wounded as he and his wife walked to their car outside a Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, about 80 miles south of Washington and 15 miles north of Richmond. Last night, it still was not clear whether the shooting was definitively linked to 12 previous ones in the District and Montgomery, Prince George's, Prince William, Fairfax and Spotsylvania counties, although a senior law enforcement official said, "we all think it's the same person." The official said evidence found at the scene helps provide the link.

Even as Moose spoke last night, the Ashland shooting victim, whose name and home state have not been released, went back into the operating room for the second time in less than 24 hours. Doctors at the Medical College of Virginia hospital in Richmond sought to repair the damage caused by a bullet fired into his abdomen. After the surgery, the man was listed in critical condition late last night.

During that operation, a hospital spokeswoman said, doctors "were able to retrieve the bullet, which has been turned over to law enforcement" for tests that would show whether the shooting is linked to the sniper. It was not immediately clear whether the bullet was whole or in fragments.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was to test the bullet at a lab in Rockville, but it also was not clear whether the tests had been completed early today. A spokeswoman for the Montgomery County police declined to comment late last night.

Ashland Police Chief Frederic Pleasants Jr. said it appears that the shot came from a wooded tree line behind the steakhouse, which is about 300 yards west of an Interstate 95 entrance ramp. Hanover County Sheriff V. Stuart Cook said witnesses heard the shot fired from the trees, but no one saw the shooter.

After nearly three weeks, law enforcement authorities have few clues in their effort to catch the elusive sniper who has escaped massive dragnets thrown up for miles around the scenes of his four most recent shootings.

If the ballistics tests link the Ashland shooting to the sniper, he has spread his fear and dread. The attack departed significantly from patterns many thought they had discerned. It was the first on a weekend and the first outside the immediate Washington metropolitan area, dramatically expanding the timing and geographical breadth of the sniper's range.

And despite a rapid and mammoth dragnet in which police clamped down major arteries and searched vehicles as far north as the District-Montgomery line, the sniper eluded their grasp.

Frustration has grown with each shooting, and officials said pressure was increasing to somehow contain the collateral effects of the serial killings. With the widespread cancellations of outdoor events, school activities and athletic competitions, the sniper attacks have become much more than a law enforcement problem.

"It is frustrating that this murderer wants us to alter our lifestyle and live in fear," Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said.

The frustration spreads to investigators who have so far relied on such mundane investigative techniques as checking credit card receipts near each of the 12 confirmed shooting incidents and chasing tips from fearful co-workers and family members who think someone they know might be the shooter.

For the moment, police are looking for any shred of evidence. Yesterday, 150 to 200 officers were deployed in the area south of the restaurant where Saturday's shooting occurred, focusing primarily on the dense, wooded buffer between the Ponderosa and the site of a future Wal-Mart.

Shortly after 9 a.m., dozens of searchers, including police cadets and officers from all neighboring counties and the city of Richmond, walked shoulder-to-shoulder in a line through the woods. The search lasted through the morning.

Saturday night, using a strategy that has grown more swift with practice though ultimately futile, the dragnet was fully deployed within about 10 minutes of the first shooting report at 7:59 p.m. Spokesmen for several law enforcement agencies said central Virginia police and sheriffs' departments began working on a regional dragnet plan shortly after the sniper began shooting people in Northern Virginia.

"This task force has been meeting for weeks discussing the what-if," Cook said. "Unfortunately the what-if hit us."

Police said the man who was shot Saturday had been traveling with his wife and stopped for food and gasoline in Ashland, a town of 6,500.

When the shot was fired, the man's wife told police she thought the loud noise coming from the direction of the trees was a car backfiring. She said she realized it was gunfire only when her husband staggered three steps and collapsed, saying, "I've been shot."

The victim was taken by ambulance to Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospital in Richmond about 8:30 p.m. "He was conscious, and he was complaining of some pain in the belly," said trauma surgeon Rao Ivatury.

The victim's injuries were extensive, as Ivatury outlined them: "His stomach was ripped apart. . . . His pancreas was torn in half."

Ivatury said the bullet also had grazed his kidney and gone into his chest, causing bleeding. During surgery that began at 9 p.m. and lasted until about midnight, doctors removed his spleen and the left half of his pancreas.

The man has a breathing tube that keeps him from talking, but he communicates by blinking his eyes and he can move his arms.

"Because of his youth and good health, he has at least a fair prognosis," Ivatury said.

The shot disconnected the victim's stomach and intestines, and Ivatury said last night's surgery was planned to reconnect them.

Saturday's shooting made the case more complicated as it apparently extended to yet another geographical area. Even as travelers' cars were being stopped and searched, task force members raced south from Northern Virginia and Maryland.

Some government officials were wondering whether the investigation's organization should be restructured. Currently, it involves multiple task forces with multiple jurisdictions but is centered in Montgomery County, where the first and most shootings occurred.

"Simple geography is going to dictate that they step back and take another look," a government official said.

"Unlike other serial killing sprees in this country, this has got an immediate crisis aspect to it. Most serial killers in multiple states, multiple jurisdictions have not put communities under the gun, so to speak, with the immediacy of attacks on the general populace every day."

Many people continue to wonder if the investigation has a more global reach. On the morning talk shows yesterday, the first question asked of politicians -- before queries about Iraq or North Korea -- was whether the sniper shootings might be linked to al Qaeda.

"There's no evidence to this point that this is the work of an international terrorist organization," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on CBS's "Face the Nation." "There have been no claims of responsibility or anything like that. We are, of course, keeping open that possibility and we're going to turn over every rock to see if it might in fact be, but there is no evidence to this point that this is internationally driven."

President Bush is being briefed on the sniper investigation every morning, Rice said.

On ABC's "This Week," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he could neither prove a link to terrorism nor rule it out.

"I don't know if it's a madman or whether it is a terrorist," he said. "But I think it shows us once again the dangerous world that we are living in and I hope that our very, very competent law enforcement officials, both at the federal and at the local levels, will solve this case as soon as possible."

It felt like a dangerous world even in some of the region's churches.

At First Baptist Church of Ashland, the Rev. Fred Horn, the minister of music at the 1,000-member congregation, said that he selected "All Hail the Power of Jesus's Name" to remind people that God is omnipotent. But Horn allowed that it is a challenge to rely on faith in the wake of the sniper's shootings.

"I have a faith that God is in control," he said, "but during times like these, it is hard to see it."

Staff writers Martin Weil, Patricia Davis, Christian Davenport, Dan Eggen, Maria Glod, Hamil R. Harris, Sari Horwitz, Spencer S. Hsu, Allan Lengel, Phuong Ly, Brooke A. Masters, Susan Schmidt, Michael D. Shear, Jamie Stockwell, Josh White and Peter Whoriskey and metro researcher Margot Williams contributed to this report.