ELKLAND, MO., SEPT. 26 -- At George's Economy Auto Service, the Lion's Club Cafe, Moore's Feed Store and elsewhere in this tiny Ozark town the same question was asked over and over today: What happened to that nice Buckner boy?

How could a quiet, hard-working 14-year-old farm boy have been capable of methodically killing his three younger brothers, his parents and an aunt?

"Everyone is just shocked into disbelief," said Barbara Plemmons, who operates the Lion's Club Cafe. "They just can't figure out how a child could flip out that far. It is like a hush has fallen over the town. People don't know what to do."

There are, of course, plenty of rumors and theories about Kirk Buckner, a tall, slender youth with a mop of dark brown hair and intense eyes. Elkland, a crossroads town of only 200, is a place without secrets.

"Here we have a 14-year-old boy. He is more or less raising his three brothers from what I gather," said Webster County Sheriff Eugene Fraker, who heads the investigation. "The mother and father were working all the time, scraping to hold things together. There was a lot of pressure on the boy. He had to work on the farm and pretty much raise the kids himself. The pressure must have just gotten to him."

It was common knowledge that Kirk's father, Steve, 35, had severe financial problems on his 110-acre dairy farm just outside town.

"There was rumors they'd been told two or three times to leave the farm, that the cattle were mortgaged, that they were on the brink of bankruptcy. It was no secret they were having a rough time. They were up against it. Everyone around here knew it," Ron Dugan, a neighbor, said today in the driveway of the Buckner farm.

"They always had it tough," he added, gazing toward the farmhouse. "They lived pretty rough."

Broken toys, rusted bicycle frames, discarded auto tires, rags and empty soda bottles littered the yard. White paint peeled from the wood and stucco house; a badly rotted porch roof hung perilously over the front door.

Kirk's father operated a small feed store and an artificial insemination business. Daily chores were done by his wife, Jan, 36, and his oldest son. Kirk and his mother were up before dawn every day, milking cows and feeding cattle, a process repeated at nightfall.

"I think that boy had more than he could handle," said Jill Murphy, who lives just down the road. "He didn't have the kind of life that other children had."

"My thought is that the pressure just kept building on Kirk and that kids were picking on him at school because of his situation, because he was poor, because of the clothes he wore," Dugan added.

But why had everything erupted in the hour before dawn Friday?

The methodical nature of the crime and the fact that three other people were murdered near this southwestern Missouri community within the last 10 days made the question even more eerie. A .22-caliber pistol was involved in all 10 deaths.

Tim, 6, and Dennis, 8, were killed as they slept. Both were shot in the head twice at close range, according to Webster County Coroner J.E. Blinn. A single gunshot wound to the head killed Michael Buckner, 2, as he lay quietly in his playpen, clutching a blanket in his arms, Blinn said. "I don't think the kids ever knew what hit them." The teen-ager then apparently reloaded the six-shot pistol and went outside.

Jan Buckner, who had been milking cows outside, was shot in the temple beside a shed. Blinn said her husband died from two bullet wounds to the back of his head, apparently while sitting in his red pickup truck.

According to police, the boy drove the pickup 2.7 miles through Elkland and dumped his father's body in a shallow ditch near the Pleasant View Church cemetery. He then drove 4.5 miles down a winding, single-lane gravel road to the well-kept farm of his aunt and uncle, Jim and Julie Schnick, police said.

Julie Schnick, 30, and the mother of two, died in bed from two gunshot wounds to the head, the coroner said. Her husband, who had been working outside, grabbed a steak knife as he came inside the house, investigators said. Police said, the pistol fired at least three times as Schnick and the 90-pound boy struggled.

Blinn said the teen-ager suffered gunshot and stab wounds to the heart. Schnick, wounded in the leg and stomach, was hospitalized in severe shock. The sheriff said he had not given a statement to investigators by late today.

Linda Covey, a doctoral candidate in psychology who knew Kirk Buckner, said the sequence of events leads her to believe that the teen-ager had long planned the shootings.

Covey and a local psychologist, who asked not to be named, said they believed that more than family finances drove the teen-ager over the brink. She speculated that some other major family conflict was involved.

Covey, who met the teen-ager years ago when she drove his school bus, said, "He seemed to need support. He didn't really interact well with other children. . . . I think he was too serious, he had too many responsibilities."