In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  During this visit Dewey paused at an upstairs window, his attention caught by something seen in the near distance—a scarecrow amid the wheat stubble. The scarecrow wore a man’s hunting-cap and a dress of weather-faded flowered calico. (Surely an old dress of Bonnie Clutter’s?) Wind frolicked the skirt and made the scarecrow sway—made it seem a creature forlornly dancing in the cold December field. And Dewey was somehow reminded of Marie’s dream. One recent morning she had served him a bungled breakfast of sugared eggs and salted coffee, then bLarned it all on “a silly dream”—but a dream the power of daylight had not dispersed. “It was so real, Alvin,” she said. “As real as this kitchen. That’s where I was. Here in the kitchen. I was cooking supper, and suddenly Bonnie walked through the door. She was wearing a blue angora sweater, and she looked so sweet and pretty. And I said, ‘Oh, Bonnie . . . Bonnie, dear . . . I haven’t seen you since that terrible thing happened.’ But she didn’t answer, only looked at me in that shy way of hers, and I didn’t know how to go on. Under the circumstances. So I said, ‘Honey, come see what I’m making Alvin for his supper. A pot of gumbo. With shrimp and fresh crabs. It’s just about ready. Come on, honey, have a taste.’ But she wouldn’t. She stayed by the door looking at me. And then—I don’t know how to tell you exactly, but she shut her eyes, she began to shake her head, very slowly, and wring her hands, very slowly, and to whimper, or whisper. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. But it broke my heart, I never felt so sorry for anyone, and I hugged her. I said, ‘Please, Bonnie! Oh, don’t, darling, don’t! If ever anyone was prepared to go to God, it was you, Bonnie.’ But I couldn’t comfort her. She shook her head, and wrung her hands, and then I heard what she was saying. She was saying, ‘To be murdered. To be murdered. No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.’ ”

  It was midday deep in the Mojave Desert. Perry, sitting on a straw suitcase, was playing a harmonica. Dick was standing at the side of a black-surfaced highway, Route 66, his eyes fixed upon the immaculate emptiness as though the fervor of his gaze could force motorists to materialize. Few did, and none of those stopped for the hitchhikers. One truck driver, bound for Needles, California, had offered a lift, but Dick had declined. That was not the sort of “setup” he and Perry wanted. They were waiting for some solitary traveler in a decent car and with money in his billfold—a stranger to rob, strangle, discard on the desert.

  In the desert, sound often precedes sight. Dick heard the dim vibrations of an oncoming, not yet visible car. Perry heard it, too; he put the harmonica in his pocket, picked up the straw suitcase (this, their only luggage, bulged and sagged with the weight of Perry’s souvenirs, plus three shirts, five pairs of white socks, a box of aspirin, a bottle of tequila, scissors, a safety razor, and a fingernail file; all their other belongings had either been pawned or been left with the Mexican bartender or been shipped to Las Vegas), and joined Dick at the side of the road. They watched. Now the car appeared, and grew until it became a blue Dodge sedan with a single passenger, a bald, skinny man. Perfect. Dick raised his hand and waved. The Dodge slowed down, and Dick gave the man a sumptuous smile. The car almost, but not quite, came to a stop, and the driver leaned out the window, looking them up and down. The impression they made was evidently alarming. (After a fifty-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Barstow, California, and half a day of trekking across the Mojave, both hikers were bearded, stark, dusty figures.) The car leaped forward and sped on. Dick cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, “You’re a lucky bastard!” Then he laughed and hoisted the suitcase to his shoulder. Nothing could get him really angry, because, as he later recalled, he was “too glad to be back in the good ol’ U.S.A.” Anyway, another man in another car would come along.

  Perry produced his harmonica (his since yesterday, when he stole it from a Barstow variety store) and played the opening bars of what had come to be their “marching music”; the song was one of Perry’s favorites, and he had taught Dick all five stanzas. In step, and side by side, they swung along the highway, singing, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Through the silence of the desert, their hard, young voices rang: “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!”



  The young man’s name was Floyd Wells, and he was short and nearly chinless. He had attempted several careers, as soldier, ranch hand, mechanic, thief, the last of which had earned him a sentence of three to five years in Kansas State Penitentiary. On the evening of Tuesday, November 17, 1959, he was lying in his cell with a pair of radio earphones clamped to his head. He was listening to a news broadcast, but the announcer’s voice and the drabness of the day’s events (“Chancellor Konrad Adenauer arrived in London today for talks with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. . . . President Eisenhower put in seventy minutes going over space problems and the budget for space exploration with Dr. T. Keith Glennan”) were luring him toward sleep. His drowsiness instantly vanished when he heard, “Officers investigating the tragic slaying of four members of the Herbert W. Clutter family have appealed to the public for any information which might aid in solving this baffling crime. Clutter, his wife, and their two teen-age children were found murdered in their farm home near Garden City early last Sunday morning. Each had been bound, gagged, and shot through the head with a .12-gauge shotgun. Investigating officials admit they can discover no motive for the crime, termed by Logan Sanford, Director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, as the most vicious in the history of Kansas. Clutter, a prominent wheat grower and former Eisenhower appointee to the Federal Farm Credit Board . . .”

  Wells was stunned. As he was eventually to describe his reaction, he “didn’t hardly believe it.” Yet he had good reason to, for not only had he known the murdered family, he knew very well who had murdered them.

  It had begun a long time ago—eleven years ago, in the autumn of 1948, when Wells was nineteen. He was “sort of drifting around the country, taking jobs as they came,” as he recalled it. “One way and another, I found myself out there in western Kansas. Near the Colorado border. I was hunting work, and asking round, I heard maybe they could use a hand over to River Valley Farm—that’s how he called his place, Mr. Clutter did. Sure enough, he put me on. I stayed there I guess a year—all that winter, anyway—and when I left it was just ’cause I was feeling kind of footy. Wanted to move on. Not account of any quarrel with Mr. Clutter. He treated me fine, same as he treated everybody that worked for him; like, if you was a little short before payday, he’d always hand you a ten or a five. He paid good wages, and if you deserved it he was quick to give you a bonus. The fact is, I liked Mr. Clutter much as any man I ever met. The whole family. Mrs. Clutter and the four kids. When I knew them, the youngest two, the ones that got killed—Nancy and the little boy what wore glasses—they were only babies, maybe five or six years old. The other two—one was called Beverly, the other girl I don’t remember her name—they were already in high school. A nice family, real nice. I never forgot them. When I left there, it was sometime in 1949. I got married, I got divorced, the Army took me, other stuff happened, time went by, you might say, and in 1959—June, 1959, ten years since I last seen Mr. Clutter—I got sent to Lansing. Because of breaking into this appliance store. Electrical appliances. What I had in mind was, I wanted to get hold of some electrical lawn mowers. Not to sell. I was going to start a lawnmower rental service. That way, see, I’d have had my own permanent little business. Course nothing come of it—’cept I drew a three-to-five. If I hadn’t, then I never would have met Dick, and maybe Mr. Clutter wouldn’t be in his grave. But there you are. There it is. I come to meet Dick.

  “He was the first fellow I celled with. We celled together I guess a month. June and part of July. He was just finishing a three-to-five—due for parole in August. He talked a lot about what he planned to do when he got out. Said he thought he might go to Nevada, one of them missile-b
ase towns, buy hisself a uniform, and pass hisself off as a Air Force officer. So he could hang out a regular washline of hot paper. That was one idea he told me. (Never thought much of it myself. He was smart, I don’t deny, but he didn’t look the part. Like no Air Force officer.) Other times, he mentioned this friend of his. Perry. A half-Indian fellow he used to cell with. And the big deals him and Perry might pull when they got together again. I never met him—Perry. Never saw him. He’d already left Lansing, was out on parole. But Dick always said if the chance of a real big score came up, he could rely on Perry Smith to go partners.

  “I don’t exactly recall how Mr. Clutter first got mentioned. It must have been when we were discussing jobs, different kinds of work we’d done. Dick, he was a trained car mechanic, and mostly that was the work he’d done. Only, once he’d had a job driving a hospital ambulance. He was full of brag about that. About nurses, and all what he’d done with them in the back of the ambulance. Anyway, I informed him how I’d worked a year on a considerable wheat spread in western Kansas. For Mr. Clutter. He wanted to know if Mr. Clutter was a wealthy man. Yes, I said. Yes, he was. In fact, I said, Mr. Clutter had once told me that he got rid of ten thousand dollars in one week. I mean, said it sometimes cost him ten thousand dollars a week to run his operation. After that, Dick never stopped asking me about the family. How many was they? What ages would the kids be now? Exactly how did you get to the house? How was it laid out? Did Mr. Clutter keep a safe? I won’t deny it—I told him he did. Because I seemed to remember a sort of cabinet, or safe, or something, right behind the desk in the room Mr. Clutter used as an office. Next thing I knew, Dick was talking about killing Mr. Clutter. Said him and Perry was gonna go out there and rob the place, and they was gonna kill all witnesses—the Clutters, and anybody else that happened to be around. He described to me a dozen times how he was gonna do it, how him and Perry was gonna tie them people up and gun them down. I told him, ‘Dick, you’ll never get by with it.’ But I can’t honestly say I tried to persuade him different. Because I never for a minute believed he meant to carry it out. I thought it was just talk. Like you hear plenty of in Lansing. That’s about all you do hear: what a fellow’s gonna do when he gets out—the holdups and robberies and so forth. It’s nothing but brag, mostly. Nobody takes it serious. That’s why, when I heard what I heard on the earphones—well, I didn’t hardly believe it. Still and all, it happened. Just like Dick said it would.”

  That was Floyd Wells’ story, though as yet he was far from telling it. He was afraid to, for if the other prisoners heard of his bearing tales to the warden, then his life, as he put it, “wouldn’t be worth a dead coyote.” A week passed. He monitored the radio, he followed the newspaper accounts—and in one of them read that a Kansas paper, the Hutchinson News, was offering a reward of one thousand dollars for any information leading to the capture and conviction of the person or persons guilty of the Clutter murders. An interesting item; it almost inspired Wells to speak. But he was still too much afraid, and his fear was not solely of the other prisoners. There was also the chance that the authorities might charge him with being an accessory to the crime. After all, it was he who had guided Dick to the Clutters’ door; certainly it could be claimed that he had been aware of Dick’s intentions. However one viewed it, his situation was curious, his excuses questionable. So he said nothing, and ten more days went by. December replaced November, and those investigating the case remained, according to increasingly brief newspaper reports (radio newscasters had ceased to mention the subject), as bewildered, as virtually clueless, as they had been the morning of the tragic discovery.

  But he knew. Presently, tortured by a need to “tell somebody,” he confided in another prisoner. “A particular friend. A Catholic. Kind of very religious. He asked me, ‘Well, what are you gonna do, Floyd?’ I said, Well, I didn’t rightly know—what did he think I ought to do? Well, he was all for me going to the proper people. Said he didn’t think I ought to live with something like that on my mind. And he said I could do it without anybody inside guessing I was the one told. Said he’d fix it. So the next day he got word to the deputy warden—told him I wanted to be ‘called out.’ Told the deputy if he called me to his office on some pretext or other, maybe I could tell him who killed the Clutters. Sure enough, the deputy sent for me. I was scared, but I remembered Mr. Clutter, and how he’d never done me no harm, how at Christmas he’d give me a little purse with fifty dollars in it. I talked to the deputy. Then I told the warden hisself. And while I was still sitting there, right there in Warden Hand’s office, he picked up the telephone—”

  The person to whom Warden Hand telephoned was Logan Sanford. Sanford listened, hung up, issued several orders, then placed a call of his own to Alvin Dewey. That evening, when Dewey left his office in the courthouse at Garden City, he took home with him a manila envelope.

  When Dewey got home, Marie was in the kitchen preparing supper. The moment he appeared, she launched into an account of household upsets. The family cat had attacked the cocker spaniel that lived across the street, and now it seemed as if one of the spaniel’s eyes might be seriously damaged. And Paul, their nine-year-old, had fallen out of a tree. It was a wonder he was alive. And then their twelve-year-old, Dewey’s namesake, had gone into the yard to burn rubbish and started a blaze that had threatened the neighborhood. Someone—she didn’t know who—had actually called the Fire Department.

  While his wife described these unhappy episodes, Dewey poured two cups of coffee. Suddenly, Marie stopped in the middle of a sentence and stared at him. His face was flushed, and she could tell that he was elated. She said, “Alvin. Oh, honey. Is it good news?” Without comment, he gave her the manila envelope. Her hands were wet; she dried them, sat down at the kitchen table, sipped her coffee, opened the envelope, and took out photographs of a blond young man and a darkhaired, dark-skinned young man—police-made “mug shots.” A pair of semi-coded dossiers accompanied the photographs. The one for the fair-headed man read:

  Hickock, Richard Eugene (WM) 28. KBI 97093; FBI 859 273 A. Address: Edgerton, Kansas. Birthdate 6-6-31. Birthplace: K.C., Kans. Height: 5-10. Weight: 175. Hair: Blond. Eyes: Blue. Build: Stout. Comp: Ruddy. Occup: Car Painter. Crime: Cheat & Defr. & Bad Checks. Paroled: 8-13-59. By: So. K.C.K.

  The second description read:

  Smith, Perry Edward (WM) 27-59. Birthplace: Nevada. Height: 5-4. Weight: 156. Hair: D. Brn. Crime: B&E. Arrested: (blank). By: (blank). Disposition: Sent KSP 3-13-56 from Phillips Co. 5-10 yrs. Rec. 3-14-56. Paroled: 7-6-59.

  Marie examined the front-view and profile photographs of Smith: an arrogant face, tough, yet not entirely, for there was about it a peculiar refinement; the lips and nose seemed nicely made, and she thought the eyes, with their moist, dreamy expression, rather pretty—rather, in an actorish way, sensitive. Sensitive, and something more: “mean.” Though not as mean, as forbiddingly “criminal,” as the eyes of Hickock, Richard Eugene. Marie, transfixed by Hickock’s eyes, was reminded of a childhood incident—of a bobcat she’d once seen caught in a trap, and of how, though she’d wanted to release it, the cat’s eyes, radiant with pain and hatred, had drained her of pity and filled her with terror. “Who are they?” Marie asked.

  Dewey told her Floyd Wells’ story, and at the end he said, “Funny. The past three weeks, that’s the angle we’ve concentrated on. Tracking down every man who ever worked on the Clutter place. Now, the way it’s turned out, it just seems like a piece of luck. But a few days more and we would’ve hit this Wells. Found he was in prison. We would’ve got the truth then. Hell, yes.”

  “Maybe it isn’t the truth,” Marie said. Dewey and the eighteen men assisting him had pursued hundreds of leads to barren destinations, and she hoped to warn him against another disappointment, for she was worried about his health. His state of mind was bad; he was emaciated; and he was smoking sixty cigarettes a day.

  “No. Maybe not,” Dewey said. “But I have a hunch.”

  His tone impressed her;
she looked again at the faces on the kitchen table. “Think of him,” she said, placing a finger against the front-view portrait of the blond young man. “Think of those eyes. Coming toward you.” Then she pushed the pictures back into their envelope. “I wish you hadn’t shown me.”

  Later that same evening, another woman, in another kitchen, put aside a sock she was darning, removed a pair of plastic-rimmed spectacles, and leveling them at a visitor, said, “I hope you find him, Mr. Nye. For his own sake. We have two sons, and he’s one of them, our firstborn. We love him. But . . . Oh, I realized. I realized he wouldn’t have packed up. Run off. Without a word to anybody—his daddy or his brother. Unless he was in trouble again. What makes him do it? Why?” She glanced across the small, stove-warmed room at a gaunt figure hunched in a rocking chair—Walter Hickock, her husband and the father of Richard Eugene. He was a man with faded, defeated eyes and rough hands; when he spoke, his voice sounded as if it were seldom used.

  “Was nothing wrong with my boy, Mr. Nye,” Mr. Hickock said. “An outstanding athlete-always on the first team at school. Basketball! Baseball! Football! Dick was always the star player. A pretty good student, too, with A marks in several subjects. History. Mechanical drawing. After he graduated from high school—June, 1949—he wanted to go on to college. Study to be an engineer. But we couldn’t do it. Plain didn’t have the money. Never have had any money. Our farm here, it’s only forty-four acres—we hardly can scratch a living. I guess Dick resented it, not getting to college. The first job he had was with Santa Fe Railways, in Kansas City. Made seventy-five dollars a week. He figured that was enough to get married on, so him and Carol got married. She wasn’t but sixteen; he wasn’t but nineteen hisself. I never thought nothing good would come of it. Didn’t, neither.”

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