Sooner or later, they all feared, one of them would be killed. The ranchers, retirees and others who prefer to live off the grid in the vast desert near the Mexican border regularly confront the desperate and dehydrated illegal border crossers, who knock on their doors for directions and water, and lately more of the less innocent, who scurry across their land or lie low in the brush, stooped with marijuana and other drugs bundled on their backs.

Now, according to the leading police theory, the inevitable has occurred, whipping up a political storm and sending a shiver through a community not easily shaken.

“You never know who you’re dealing with out here because you get all kinds of traffic through here,” said William McDonald, a fellow rancher on the vast mesquite scrubland pocked with canyons and scattered mountain ranges floating on the horizon like islands. Mr. McDonald and other residents said that in the last year or two the traffic had taken a more sinister turn, with larger numbers of drug smugglers, many clad in black and led by armed scouts.

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