Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Clutter Family Neighbor, Holcomb, Kansas

The boys parked by the mailbox and got the shotgun. They walked up to the modest farmhouse and slipped into the kitchen. They surprised Fred and Nora Ward on that cold November evening sitting snug by the fireplace. Perry motioned for Dick to look upstairs as there were kids in the house.
            Perry looked down at Nora as he prepared to gag her.
           The slight gray haired woman watched as the second intruder padded up the stairs holding the shotgun tightly.
            “You’ll be sorry.” Nora whispered, looking up at Perry with muddy eyes.
            At that moment Perry had doubts, his enthusiasm seeped away as air out of a balloon. Maybe they should cut and run. Call it off.
           Perry hesitated and stepped back. What did the old lady mean?
           Sorry…sorry for what? For the invasion, the robbery? Or was there something upstairs?
           Dick paused at the head of the stairs and crept into the main bedroom. There in the dim light sitting in a corner was a teenage girl in a simple navy dress. She had long black hair that framed her narrow, alabaster face and was alluring. Perhaps there was time for a dalliance. As Dick approached the silent girl and started to speak she looked at him with startling yellow eyes that bored into Dick’s soul.
           She put finger to her lips. “Shhh.”
           Dick wanted to explain, to wave the slide shotgun, but he seemed frozen. The girl rose and slipped around him and led Dick back downstairs. Perry was startled as they stood in the hall.
           Nora Ward murmured behind her gag, “I told you so”.
           Neither man spoke. They followed the girl out of the house and back to their car by the mailbox.
           “I am Eleanor and I will take you to the house you seek.” She said and climbed in the backseat.
           Dick drove and he followed directions to the nearby, prosperous looking farm.  Eleanor knew what they needed. Dick parked on the dirt road and the girl popped out of the back and boldly led them up the walk to the porch.
            Fluffy the cat was asleep on the welcome mat and looked lazily at the approaching figures. Fluff saw dark Eleanor staring at her with her yellow eyes and the cat leaped up hissing, back arched, and then flew off the porch. The party of three went through the front door. No one locked front doors in Holcomb.
             “No witnesses.” Eleanor said as they entered the still house. “Hair on the the wall."                 
             There was dead silence, even the wind paused and the windmill out back creaked to a halt. Then two blasts, a few minutes of silence, and then two more blasts.
             The shots rolled across the desolate Kansas prairie. Fred and Nora looked at each other, acknowledging retribution for the social slights. Nora smiled.
             When it was over the family of four was dead. But there was no safe, no money. The boys drove Eleanor back to her home. She exited from the back and the boys drove off, heading for Vegas.
              The killers were quickly apprehended in Las Vegas, returned to Kansas for trial and found guilty, condemned to hang. A writer who befriended Dick and Perry recorded their motives and feelings. In one interview, the writer sat across from Perry at a table. Sunlight streamed in through the cell bars, capturing dust motes. Perry stared intently at the strange, yellow afternoon light and it reminded him of Eleanor. He thought back when he gagged the old woman, the moment he wanted out, had doubts about the plan. The old woman had said, -You’ll be sorry.
               Perry banged forward in his chair. Yes, the old woman had been right. At that moment he wanted to call it off. But when Dick came down the stairs with Eleanor and she looked at him with those yellow eyes, his doubts vanished and his spirits soared.
               “It was the girl…” Perry blurted.
              The writer lunged across the table. Something new! Perhaps a tidbit, a girl involved! A new angle! The plot thickens!
              But Perry never mentioned the girl again and the boys were hanged on a dismal December day. The evening of the hanging the Ward family got in their black Oldsmobile and headed west. To California, of course.
             Today the ramshackle Ward farmhouse is for sale, but no buyers.  Even the town party kids steer clear. No one knows why, but the house sits empty.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Antebellum Waverly Mansion Incident, West Point, Mississippi

Jeanne Louise awoke to find a woman in a white cotton gown beside her bed. She was holding a brass holder with a flickering candle. Jeanne eyed her angular face and the black hair that cascaded down to her shoulders.
            Was Jeanne Louise dreaming?
            The woman put her finger to her lips, motioning for silence. “No need for alarm.” The figure said softly. “This is the Wavery midnight mansion tour.”
            Slipping into her navy robe and dutifully followed the woman out of the bedroom. The lady in white looked back and whispered that Jeanne was getting the special one-person plantation tour, reserved only for Van Doran related guests.
            Jeanne hurried to keep up with the strange woman, but felt a thrill. It was so theatrical!  And Jeanne Louise was connected to the ill-fated Van Doran family, as her mother could trace her roots back to the oldest of the five Van Doran daughters. Even more intriguing was the mystery that cloaked General Earl Van Doran’s wife, an olive-skinned woman from the bayous of Louisiana.    Some said the wife was a mystic, or worse.
             They went silently down the grand stair case and into the library that was off to the left of the landing of the antebellum manor. Jeanne Louise had many questions, but the guide shook her head and led them into the shadowy room, lit only by a dim lamp. They paused by the old desk that looked out on the grand lawn bordered with two sentinel lines of stately oak trees.
            “The General was shot at his desk while he signed a pass through the Confederate lines for his friend, Doctor Pater.”  The woman intoned, setting the candle down she dramatically slipped behind the desk chair and raised her finger as a revolver.
            “Pow!” She said softly.
            Jeanne Louise recalled whispers of the murder, but in her family it was taboo, a tragedy unspoken, too racy to retell to children.
            “But why/” Jeanne was able to ask before the guide hushed her.
            They moved to the sitting area and Jeanne took a seat on the couch. The woman sat across from her, black hair falling over her eyes so Jeanne could not see her distinctly.
            “Earl Van Doran was a womanizer, dallying with Dr. Pater’s wife, so Pater shot the General.”
            Jeanne’s eyes went wide at the intrigue, an affair of the heart, leading to a tragic shooting.
            The woman leaned forward, telling Jeanne Louise that Earl’s wife, Annette LeClaire was from Southern Louisiana and of mixed Creole-Gypsy blood. Annette had charmed the General into marriage. But Earl’s flirtation with Pater’s wife was the last straw for Annette, who was rumored to trade in spells and hexes. It was whispered that Annette put a trance on Dr. Pater, inducing him to kill the General in his study. Annette had tolerated enough of her husband’s wandering eye. And there was Annette’s friend, a dashing Confederate Calvary Colonel.
            Listening to the story, Jeanne riveted to hear this version in the mustiness of the manor’s library. She stared in awe at the very desk where Earl Van Doran was shot. When the guide paused, Jeanne asked what happened to Annette.
            Jeanne Louise told her guide that family the stories about Annette were murky. One version was that Annette had taken to bed where she stayed until her death at an early age. Another version was that Annette had up and vanished, perhaps following a cavalry officer down to Vicksburg where the two of them perished in the infamous siege.
            The woman with the candle sat back and smiled at Jeanne. “Nothing so romantic, but more tragic.”
             And she went on to say how Dr. Pater’s friends and neighbors had long suspected that Annette practiced the black arts, that she had hexed the good doctor into shooting Van Doran.
             The mob came one night after Prater shot the General and took Annette out to the Willow Walk. There they selected a sturdy tree and hanged Annette LeClaire. The war was not going well and there was no tolerance for a mystery woman from the Louisiana Bayou putting a spell on their beloved doctor.
            Jeanne Louise put her hand to her neck and her brown eyes misted. She had never heard this version, a hot-headed mob lynching Annette LeClaire, her mother’s great-grandmother.
            The two women sat in silence. Jeanne sat back and saw on the far wall a regal portrait of Earl Van Doran, resplendent in his Confederate Cavalry uniform with a rakish feathered hat. Jeanne then looked to her right, the wall facing the library windows, and took a breath. There hung a portrait of a beautiful, black-haired young woman in white, staring intently out at the long drive, as if regally awaiting guests. It was a portrait of a younger version of her late-night guide.
            “Her loyal daughters, led by the oldest Louise, cut their mother down and buried her in secret under the garden gazebo on the river.”
            The guide explained that Annette was restless, unhappy and yearned to be disinterred from her hidden grave and moved to the Van Dorn mausoleum. Annette regretted her jealousy and now longed to be with her beloved husband.
            “Then Annette can sleep peacefully.” The guide said. 
Jeanne Louise stood by the ornate mausoleum on the corner of the estate, the resting place of the Confederate General Earl Van Doran. It had all been arranged quietly, and she laid a bouquet of gladiolas by the bronze door, with a simple note addressed to Earl and Annette. Then she stepped back and murmured a prayer.
            There would be no more midnight mansion tours at the Wavery Plantation in West Point, Mississippi.