GLENDORA, MISS. -- Hours after the charred body of his beautiful blond ex-wife was discovered still smoldering in a cotton field last November, Ralph Hand III, paraplegic son of a powerful plantation owner, made a run for it. In his hand-operated 280Z, he roared about the flat cotton lands here in the Mississippi Delta, 30 deputies in hot pursuit.

After running a gantlet of bullets and skidding into a ditch, he was dragged from his car, unscratched but with what appeared to be blood on his pants. In his pocket police found a .22 shell casing they say matched the bullet in his ex-wife's brain. He also had her gold Gucci watch and clip-on earrings. Tire tracks near the body matched his Ford pickup. Farm hands placed him near the scene hours before the body was found.

It seemed open and shut, as murder cases go.

Yet here amid the Delta's vast velvety cotton lands handed down from one generation to the next, where New South winds blow hard against Old South plantation reality, basic facts don't always serve up the whole truth.

Here, where children of black cotton pickers play tag beside a white marble statue commemorating Tallahatchie County's Confederate dead, and Ralph Hand III hunkers down in a red brick jail up the road in Sumner, charged with murder and forbidden bail, there is much debate about who is the real victim: the beloved crippled prince of plantation society, a gentle soul and benevolent boss by all accounts, or Olivia Browning, his deceased ex-wife, a postmaster's daughter of unpredictable temperament.

Whoever it is, the case has spawned sordid gossip about how Hand was mistreated by Browning, about how they were star-crossed lovers with a destructive obsession for each other; how they couldn't stay apart even divorced, their bloody romance sparking a showdown between father and son. All this set against a backdrop of broken dreams, heavy drinking and domestic violence.

Many close to Hand portray him as an abused husband, helpless to fight back when the ex-wife he had taken back threw his walker into the yard and made him crawl for it, when she beat him with a broom handle as he lay on the floor.

Others question whether justice can be done when the accused's family ranks among the most respected and powerful economic pillars around.

"I wonder about it," says Tutwiler, Miss., Mayor Gary Shepherd, a high school classmate of Olivia's who owns a local grain elevator. "If you know anything about Tallahatchie County justice, money talks."

"If Jesus Christ came down and pardoned Ralph, some people would say Ralph's family bought Him off," scoffs Edgar Gwin, a friend of the accused.

"This is no bought-off deal," nods Ed Lowe, the man who introduced the couple to each other. "We're not against Olivia, but people who want to stick to her side are going to have to back down when it comes to the truth. It's strange how someone can be viewed as a devil alive and an angel dead."

It was a cool November day when ditch digger Alvin Winters, taking the afternoon off to hunt deer, stumbled over a suspicious fire near Hand property and alerted police. Beeped on his way home, coroner Larry Tucker whipped his car around and, following directions, veered off Highway 49, a two-lane blacktop, onto a dirt road.

There they were, a gaggle of police officers, over by a drainage ditch between two cotton fields, standing around a fire, "watching evidence burn up," he recalled. All he could tell was it was a woman, maybe 5-foot-4, wearing bluejeans, Reeboks and a brown sweater. She looked like a "charred steak" after baptism with diesel fuel and a match.

A two-inch barrette suggested long hair. He scooped up what was left and ferried it to the hospital for tests. "What else can you tell us?" asked police.

"She was 25-30 years old, about 120 pounds, brown hair, female," he said, after weighing remains that came to maybe 90 pounds, and tacking on a few more.

How did he figure all that with so little to go on, the cops wanted to know."How do you know Santa Claus is going to come," said Tucker, a no-nonsense chemist who offered up another unscientific rationale:

"You see a petite women around here under 30 and less than 200 pounds, you figure she probably just got divorced or gone on a crash diet."

As murders go, this one has stunned the Delta, from its porticoed plantations to shanties of poor black field hands, but intrigued it as well, like some Southern Gothic tale by Flannery O'Connor. "Anybody can be pushed," sighs Cleotha Morris, 31, once a 4-dollar-an-hour cotton picker for the Hands. "But Mr. Ralph would have to be pushed awful hard to do something like that."

It has also cast shadows over a unique but vanishing aristocracy of the Old South, notable for an ability to survive boom times and bust and party on, who think nothing of driving 100 miles for an elegant dinner at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, or a shrimp cocktail at Webster's, on the riverbank in Greenwood, Miss., where Ralph and Olivia used to drink amid drawling genteel optimists, survivors historically immune to change or identity crisis -- until now.

Now subtle shades of class distinction are being raised, highlighting the difference between victim and accused, their breeding -- his status as a scion of plantation society, hers as a postmaster's daughter.

Courtly Southern manners were certainly in evidence the other day as the accused killer -- he has pleaded not guilty -- gripped his walker, a soft-spoken man drawling hellos as he headed off the courthouse elevator, dragging lifeless legs behind. At the door, he folded the walker and, supporting himself on the rail with his other arm, bounced backward down granite steps, slippery from a soft rain.

"Don't fall on me now, Ralph," said a solicitous deputy as the clock tower on the square in Sumner pealed a mournful dirge on the half-hour.

"Do my best," said Hand, 31, paralyzed from the waist down from auto accident when he was a teenager. He forced a smile, a shock of reddish blond hair falling over pale blue eyes. His court appearance over, he was on his way back to jail, nodding to strangers in the hall, ever polite.

Indeed, he was raised right, by all accounts, destined to take over his father's 4,000 acres of cotton and soybeans bursting from rich black earth 100 miles south of Memphis here in the rural Mississippi Delta. He was ordained to carry on an Old South heritage that has changed little even as a New South has emerged around it. With three sisters, he was heir apparent, that is, until Olivia's body was found, a .22 slug through her left eye, ribs cracked from either a beating or the fire's heat.

Now succession is in jeopardy. His father, "Big Ralph," a Dartmouth graduate from New Jersey who married into the land, but worked hard and rose to prominence as one of the most progressive plantation owners in the Delta, has laid off his workers. Leasing his land to Ralph's uncle, two-time gubernatorial candidate Mike Sturdivant, he took a day job at a farmer's cooperative. Religiously, he brings cigarettes to the jail, for Ralph and fellow inmates.

"It's a terrible thing," he said the other day. "I was Ralph's Cub Scout leader. ... We're a close-knit family ... just trying to get through this with as much dignity as we can."

"Dignity is what we most care about," echoed his wife, Edie, still proud, chin up. She was elegant on a hot August afternoon, in a gray silk dress and three strands of pearls, as she crossed the town square to pick up dry cleaning during a court recess. Her strategy? "One day at a time," she said.

The Hands were told they would not be welcome at Olivia's funeral last November in Tutwiler, when she was buried in a top-of-the-line, $4,329 solid cherry wood casket. Pallbearers put her down beneath a large pecan tree alongside her grandparents in all-white Rose Mound cemetery, her maiden name on the tombstone.

Sumner Mayor James Bryant, bank president and Ford dealer, has avoided the courtroom hearings, attended by members of both the Hand and the Browning families. "Wouldn't know where to sit," he said. His sons played Little League baseball with Ralph. He sold Ralph his pickup. He often waits his turn at the barber with Olivia's father.

"I hurt for both families," he says. "Both are good people."

To complicate matters, District Attorney Bobby Williams figured that Olivia's jewelry in Ralph's pocket was sufficient evidence to prove rich young Hand meant to rob his ex-wife. That theory allowed Williams to charge capital murder -- murder committed during the commission of another felony -- which carries a maximum penalty of death by lethal injection.

An August trial date was postponed as lawyers jockeyed motions at the state Supreme Court. The judge closed a recent pretrial hearing to the press and gagged attorneys. Few officials -- or friends -- will comment, or discuss a mystery hatchet introduced by the defense at a pretrial hearing, possibly to support a claim of self-defense. Was Olivia wielding a weapon when she was shot?

The autopsy report might support such a claim, police sources say: The bullet's trajectory indicates "he'd have to be below her" firing up, perhaps on his back. There were no powder burns found on the victim, suggesting the single shot was fired from more than two feet away.

Come trial, Olivia's ghost may take a beating.

"Don't have time to talk to you, I have a man whose life hangs in the balance," says attorney William Willard, a 6-foot-4 ex-Marine, battle-tested in Vietnam. "But Ralph definitely has a story to tell. We're just waiting for a proper place to tell it."

That place, unless a plea bargain is worked out, will be the same historic courthouse that once saw two white men acquitted in 1955 despite overwhelming evidence that they had beaten and shot to death a black teenager, Emmett Till, because he whistled at a white woman. Any Hand trial promises similar high drama.

There are two sides to this story, both passionate. Everyone, seemingly, has an opinion. Olivia's friends say she was trying to leave him after he beat her, his drinking out of control as he begged her to stay; that she wanted to move back to her parents' but he refused to let her.

"They ought to do him just like he done her, burn him," spits James Hamilton, 34, a childhood friend of Olivia.

"Why did he have to sneak off and burn her, could have just thrown her in the Tallahatchie River. It's not more than four miles from his house.

"Why didn't he just call the sheriff if he was afraid she was going to hurt him? Or say, 'I shot her, she's lying on the floor?' Now I want to know why the taxpayers have to pay for him to sit in jail and watch TV?"

"You get a lot of different opinions," says county coroner Tucker, 36, who ruled Olivia Browning was dead before being burned. "Some say, 'That sumbitch got no right to kill nobody.' Then you start hearing about how bad she was to him. A lot of boys here would probably think, by God, he's got every right to shoot her like a dog that run off. I think most people here think that way. ... Things haven't changed very much around here since the 1800s. That's just the way it is, Bud."

It dominates conversation in this sleepy little town in a county of 17,000 on a bayou sprouting giant cypresses. The town mows lawns of its elderly free. Doctors make house calls, and Christmas fireworks are a spectacle. From Wong's Grocery on the square, where a 1990 Ole Miss football schedule stares from a window, to the country club, many are rooting for Ralph. "Nobody here can say they haven't heard about it," says Tucker, "or aren't in some way connected to {his family} for their livelihood.

"It's strange, all over the country people depend on Arabian oil. But down here, we depend on Tallahatchie County cotton. It's the heart of the Delta. It quits pumping, there's nothing here."

Ralph III grew up with three sisters in a sprawling brick ranch house tucked deep into Glendora cotton land off Highway 49. It sits beneath tall pecan trees at the end of a long driveway, where his father, a New Jersey native, settled after falling for Elizabeth Sturdivant, moving South to learn cotton from in-laws.

"Big Ralph wasn't from here, but he's every bit a 'Southern gentleman,' " says an admirer who watched him win over locals -- a strapping, gregarious man many compare to John Wayne. Backing community causes, he caught on quick, presiding over the mighty business lobbying organization called the Delta Council, quietly instructing inmates at Parchman Prison, singing in the church choir. For little Ralph, it was a happy, privileged childhood, surrounded by beloved retainers like Sweeny Martin, who let him tag along when he worked, and later when he went to forbidden juke joints on the other side of the tracks.

It was an Old South time warp, where custom prevailed, but with a progressive overlay: No prejudice was tolerated in the Big House, where Ralph grew up color-blind, by all accounts, among cotton pickers who say they were paid and treated better than most any place they'd worked, and lent money with no third degree.

"You had to buy a car, {little} Ralph asked, 'How much you need,' wrote you a check and took it out of your pay," in affordable chunks, said one ex-employee.

"When my house burned down, out of all the millionaires here, nobody offered me any help except Ralph," says Joe Mactee, 48, a former tractor driver. "He brought me a check, said he was hurt about it and that he wished he could do more."

"I couldn't be on no jury," he said.

Ralph was 15 when his mother died of cancer; he took it hard, albeit in a quiet, stoic way, say friends. After his father got remarried, to Edie Hoshall Crump of Memphis, who brought along her three children, Ralph bought her Mother's Day cards.

At all-white Pillow Academy in nearby Greenwood, he stood out, a straight-A student, vicious tennis player, class officer and valedictorian, class of '76. Bright, with a dry wit, he put on no airs, and wound up with maybe the prettiest girl in the class, Streater Odom, as a steady.

Streater was riding shotgun in the accident that altered his life. It was Halloween 1976. Ralph had gone off to Ole Miss and pledged Phi Delta Theta. After celebrating too hard for an Ole Miss-LSU football game, he roared the wrong way up a highway ramp in Baton Rouge, smashing into another car. That driver suffered a broken leg. Streater's face was cut badly but her looks were mostly restored after extensive plastic surgery. Ralph lost the use of his legs.

Laid up in Jackson, he became a comeback kid in rehab, working his upper body into such extraordinary shape that he did not need to rely on a wheelchair. Push-pull-dragging himself with a walker, he could stand tall, look people in the eye. By summer, he was back in school, inspiring others with his quiet courage.

"He could go out and roll all night, drink beer, do whatever he wanted, then get up and knock a test to its knees," marveled frat brother Howard Graham, a stockbroker.

Maybe he did drink just a tad more afterward, bourbon in winter, vodka in spring, beer year-round, but he never showed it. "All he did was grin when he drank," says a college friend. "He never showed anything like a violent streak. You couldn't hide something like that at Ole Miss... . "

Always, there was a pretty coed on his arm, just like before, only to some it seemed that he was pursuing women a little too enthusiastically, as if he were out to prove something.

He'd always aimed to study business, then "grow old" helping his father with the cotton, working side by side with the man he admired most in the world, he told friends. Indeed, in 1982, he left Ole Miss for Glendora, a few credits shy of a degree, to embrace his destiny back home.

Olivia hailed from 12 miles up the road, the younger of two girls whose father, Nelson Browning, cashed out of cotton to become a postmaster. "Maybe when the trial is over, I'll have something to say," Nelson Browning sighed, stepping from an adding machine. He confirmed talk that the district attorney has run a possible plea bargain past the family.

Is the victim's father willing to settle for a plea to reduced charges, rather than risk an acquittal at trial? "We're leaving it up to the DA," he said, poker-faced.

Then he drove his red Ford LTD with the white vinyl top a few blocks to his modest green frame house with a wreath on the door, all neatly trimmed with pink flowers. It is flanked by one store touting "used tires," another selling snacks beside a busy highway.

Olivia grew up here, transferring from public school after integration to all-white Delta Academy in Marks.

From there, it was on to Delta State University in Cleveland for a year, transferring to "The W," a k a Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, earning a degree in journalism in 1979. But she was hard to figure. On the one hand, she was a rebel belle, spurning her debut, yet "definitely wouldn't date anybody without money," says a school friend. A free spirit inclined to roar off to the beach with girlfriends in her blue VW bug, she dabbled after college at reporting, worked for a land developer in Greenwood, then learned life as she envisioned it would never come to pass: She would be unable to bear children, doctors told her after gynecological surgery.

"She was truly disappointed," says a friend who saw her in the hospital. "She wanted children."

After a short, unhappy marriage to a former Ole Miss football player turned lawyer in Greenwood, she came home to old friends. And made new friends.

"She brought out the worst in men," sighs J. Gordon, who knew Olivia in high school, college, and afterward. "She wouldn't do what they wanted her to do. She'd just rip 'em up, break their hearts, get 'em where she wanted 'em and drive 'em crazy, or they'd drive themselves crazy over her. She had that effect. I know plenty like her. They're not 'femmes fatales,' just Mississippi women."

Ed Lowe sat barefoot after fishing, musing over a mixed drink in a Mason jar about how he'd introduced Ralph and Olivia. "We stayed up all night drinking, cooking and talking," he remembers. "Can't say I regret it, but it was Ralph's downfall."

He had to have her, and did, his spirits buoyed after they met, say friends. "They was always hugged up when they came around here," recalls convenience store owner Jack Down.

The dark side was yet to emerge.

It was a small family wedding in Glendora's tiny Methodist church, nestled beneath tall oaks. Dec. 15, 1984. Big Ralph was best man. Olivia was 45 minutes late, offered no excuse, "just grabbed Ralph's arm and marched down the aisle," says one guest.

After an Acapulco, Mexico, honeymoon, it was back to the land, with Ralph supervising cotton pickers from dawn until past dark, riding his four-wheeler between rows, Olivia clinging to his back, upbeat, bubbly, making it all worthwhile. What did she want, beyond love?

"I won't say she was a gold digger, just that she wanted the better things, which we all do," says Gordon. "Ralph was her security."

Says Lowe, less charitably: "Olivia wanted to be set up."

Whatever it was, it was fine for a time. She had a horse, and she had Ralph. They rarely entertained, just hung out together, sometimes riding around in his dark gray 280Z all night long through the hot Mississippi night, thick with heat, passion and swarms of darting dragonflies, cotton fields racing toward them in the darkness, dogs and whiskey in the back seat, looking for something they apparently never found. Ralph had an Irish setter, Shannon; she had a doberman named Bruiser. Usually, the dogs got along better than their masters.

When she drank, she demeaned him, and "she liked to drink a lot, vodka," says Glendora garage owner Pat Didlake, 39, friends with both. He fixed their cars, saw the bottles. "She wasn't a bitch, she just had ... an attitude."

When they stopped for cold drinks at Jones Grocery, "she'd always be fussing, screaming and cussing, raised Cain with him," says owner A.D. Jones, 56, whose children ran popsicles to the car so Ralph wouldn't have to get out. "She acted like she didn't want us to wait on him. We felt sorry for him. ... I don't see how he lived with a person like that."

It spilled over into the fields, where she often appeared, slurring her words, drink in hand, to cuss out the hands, racial epithets and all, playing lady of the manor for all it was worth.

"You black son of a bitch," she once spat at Eugene Rosebud, 36, after he broke a tractor axle, an accident. "I'm not going to let you bankrupt Ralph." She drew up, dead in his face.

He gritted his teeth, boiling, and walked away. But she'd struck a nerve, and kept riding him, say fellow workers. One day she found him, sweating from a long morning on the picker, eating his lunch. "She said, 'You better suck those chicken bones dry, because that's the last meal you'll get around here,' " Rosebud remembers. "I couldn't take it. I just threw my food across the field and walked away. Ain't gonna be treated like no dog."

"When I heard about what happened," says Rosebud, "I felt bad for Ralph, but I ain't cried one bit."

It was hard to hide what was happening at home, as stories began to spread: how she ripped all the wires out of his truck, threw his walker into the yard on a cold winter day, making him crawl to get it, or beat him with whatever she could get her hands on. "I seen the scars on him," says cotton chopper Bernice Collins. "People talked about it."

"She whipped his butt many times," says Sweeny Martin, 50, who helped raise Ralph. Battered and bruised, his boss often sought out the black man late at night for comfort.

"I'd ask, 'Why don't you let her go?' And he'd say, 'I can't, I love her.' "

Olivia looked fine in faded jeans, long blond hair flowing. The boys at the filling station wondering aloud if Ralph kept her satisfied. Her friendly smiles fueled the gossip. "Around here, you're only as good as your image," says one local. "Not that {sex} was a problem, it was only a problem of perception. The worst thing she could do to him was not to fool around, just act like she needed to."

It was killing his father to watch his lovesick son tortured.

Sweeny Martin says Ralph would try to cover up the scars so his father wouldn't see them. "He'd wear high shirt collars, or sunglasses, or if he saw his Daddy coming, he'd talk to him on the radio to keep {him} from seeing the bruises," says Martin.

"I'd see him and say, 'You fell in the briar patch, huh? He had two walkers and sometimes she took them both." She'd trick him sometimes, catch him off guard, "act pleased, then he'd set one down and she'd throw it outside," Martin says. Then, he says, she would beat him with broom handles, keep him at bay.

They were only married a year before she sued for divorce. The grounds: "cruel and inhuman treatment." On Jan. 25, 1986, a judge ordered Hand to pay $15,000, bills totaling $750 -- to the vet, the Piggly Wiggly, the florist -- and awarded Olivia such wedding gifts as the gas patio grill, fireplace tools, photographs and dishes. There was no alimony.

A divorce, however, wasn't enough to keep them apart, nor abate Big Ralph's fury at watching his son suffer at the hands of a bad-news woman he wanted gone, say friends. She kept "sneaking back on the property," says Martin. "She'd slip in there all the time to see Ralph, {hide} her car near the cotton gin and he'd go pick her up. She was up at his house months after they got divorced."

Why did she keep going back?

"I think she just lost her confidence," says a girlfriend, "when she found out how hard it was to survive alone," off the plantation. They camped out by the river on the back side of the property, hid from his father.

Big Ralph found out, "offered her a large sum of money to leave," says Ed Lowe. "Everybody knew she was bad for Ralph." It hurt his father to do it, but he put it to Ralph this way, says Lowe: "Either she's going to leave, or you both are going to have to leave."

It was too much, "the pressure," says Martin. Ralph felt trapped. "He was trying to make everybody happy, his Daddy, his workers, his wife, and trying to be happy himself."

Toward the end, Olivia one day wheeled into Pat Didlake's garage, a pint of vodka on the seat. She was stumbling over her words. "She said, 'They're going to have to kill me to get rid of me this time,' " he remembers. "I was shocked."

Police found the body of Olivia Browning in the early evening of Nov. 21; they put out an APB for Ralph, and he was pulled over outside Webb. Deputy Henry Gipson saw what resembled blood on his pants. This is how Tallahatchie Deputy Mike Rogers remembers it:

Asked to come on down to the office, Ralph roared off. Gipson stomped it, but he couldn't keep up. Ralph hit 120 mph, then suddenly pulled a 180, headed the other way. Gipson spun sideways, stopped. Ralph bore down, rammed him, caromed off and kept going. Gipson gave chase again, lost two back tires, spun out. Cars from two other counties joined in. They were no match either. Only highway patrolman Danny Beavers, in a high performance Ford, could keep up.

As Ralph roared past a roadblock, a trooper fired, a 9 mm slug catching his left rear tire. It didn't blow, but seeped slowly flat, until just outside Minter City, Ralph lost control, skidded into a ditch.

"FREEZE!" shouted police, approaching the paraplegic, guns drawn.

"Please kill me," he sobbed, begging officers to shoot him on the spot.

Then, according to police, Ralph III blurted this line:

"Women will make you do funny things."