From the coffee drinkers at John's Diner to the mothers putting their children on yellow school buses, residents of this tiny hamlet of farms and dairies say they are having a hard time understanding the case of Kathleen Householder.

Two days ago, Householder, 21, was charged with murder of her newborn baby, Lindsey Blake Householder, an event that left people who had grieved for the lost child feeling hurt, angry and confused.

"I'm not even going to say what I think they should do to that woman," said Judi Getts, a 25-year-old mother of two.

"The best thing I can tell you is that I cried," said Dottie Jenkins, 36, a restaurant cook. "I can't imagine doing that to a child."

The story began three weeks ago when Householder told police that her 2-week-old infant had been taken from her unlocked pickup truck, which was parked in an IGA food store lot in nearby Winchester, Va.

Householder said she had run into the supermarket for a few minutes to cash a paycheck and to buy cigarettes. When she returned, the baby's car seat was empty, with only the blanket left behind, she said.

A teary Householder made appeals on television for the return of her child. "Just don't hurt her," she said. "I don't want any trouble from anybody. I just want her back."

Many in Rippon didn't know much about Kathleen Householder. A Florida native, she had married a local man three years ago. She lived with her husband and small son near the banks of the Shenandoah River.

Still, the people of this unincorporated community -- many of them farmers or construction workers -- responded.

"All our hearts went out to that lady," said Cathy Breedon, owner of the only grocery in town, its door advertising Red Man Chewing Tobacco. "Just about the last thing we saw on television every night was her sobbing."

"We thought about taking up money," said Sue Smith, who owns John's Diner, which features home-baked pies and country ham. "My father-in-law is a minister, and his whole congregation prayed for her."

Many of the estimated 500 people tucked in these hills also worried that some nut might be on the loose. They locked their trailers and homes. Mothers pulled their children close.

"Everybody was watching for suspicious cars that might be hanging around," said Dale Reid, a 27-year-old mother of two.

On Monday, Householder submitted to a police polygraph test. She also changed her story. On Tuesday, she led searchers to the river bank near the Rte. 50 bridge, police have said.

There, in 18 inches of water, was a brown plastic trash bag containing the tiny body of Lindsey Blake Householder. An autopsy showed that the infant had died of asphyxiation and head trauma, with swelling to the brain. Police have not stated what they think the motive might have been.

Breedon was at her grocery store when the radio crackled that Householder had been arrested and was being held at the Jefferson County jail.

"I think everybody's thoughts were about the same," she said yesterday as a delivery man stocked fresh bread and hot dog buns. "We were all just stunned and hurt and upset."

Outside the grocery, Connie Lang, a 20-year-old who is expecting her first child in July, agreed. "There's a lot of people angry at her," Lang said. "She should have told the truth to begin with."

Down Rte. 340, past winter fields of dried corn stubble, Reid and Getts stood in parkas and watched the school bus pull away. Both have lived in Rippon all their lives.

"This makes it hard on people now, because if something might happen to their kids, who would believe them," said Reid, her hood pulled against the wind.

Added Getts: "I watched it on the news last night, and I laid awake until 3 a.m., just thinking about that poor baby."

At John's Diner, country music played and hot coffee flowed.

Tammy Getts, the 20-year-old waitress, said she was still in shock. Jenkins, the cook, kept shaking her head. "A mother's love is supposed to be the greatest thing in the world," she said.

Chris Smith, a 17-year-old senior at nearby Jefferson High School, joined the conversation.

"If she was standing right here, I'd tell her exactly how I feel -- angry," declared Smith.

Smith's mother, Sue, owns the diner. Sue Smith's sentiments were less easily unraveled, ranging from personal hurt to pity.

Not only does Householder face a murder count, but her 23-year-old husband, Daniel, was indicted last spring in a drunk driving accident that caused the death of another motorist, police have said.

It's hard not to feel something for these people, Sue Smith said. "But, my main problem is with the way the baby was disposed of," she said. "Even if my dog died, I wouldn't put it in a trash bag and throw it in the river. A loved one -- or, anybody you care for -- it's in you to give them a decent funeral."