– Many things hold little Southern towns together. There is a common love of the region, the peace that comes with rural life and, often, prayer.

In this town of 2300 in the heart of peanut country, people drew on all those as they endured what by Friday had stretched into an unimaginable situation.

A relative newcomer to town – a man who had fought in Vietnam and appeared to harbour a deep distrust of government and a grudge against every neighbour – shot and killed a bus driver, grabbed a five-year-old boy named Ethan and disappeared with the boy into a well-equipped bunker he had spent months digging in his yard.

The man – who was identified by neighbours and the Sheriff’s office as Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65 – has no connection to the boy.

The FBI stayed in contact with Dykes by day and let him sleep at night, said Police Chief James Arrington of Pinckard, a nearby city. “They’re taking time and trying to wear him out,” he said. “He may do harm if they try to rush him. We don’t know how much ammunition or bombs he has.”

Dykes has been known to stay in his bunker for up to eight days, neighbours said. Some said they watched him build it, carrying cinder blocks and digging for hours. No one is sure exactly why he took the boy.

The boy is reportedly doing well in the bunker, an Alabama state senator, Harri Anne Smith, said. She and an Alabama state representative, Steve Clouse, had met Ethan’s mother and said food and medication  her son needed for autism was delivered to the bunker through an 18-metre plastic pipe about 10 centimetres in diameter. Still, Mr Clouse said, the family was just holding on by a thread.

As it became clear the standoff would continue – the bunker was well supplied with food and, apparently, a television and lights – the national media began arriving.

Residents watched as their tiny town, where the National Peanut Festival in nearby Dothan is the biggest event of the year, became a constant presence on national television.

The events soon became one more point of discussion in the national debate about guns.

Most people here own guns and hunt, and many are steadfast in their belief that guns are not the problem; mental health is.

Around town and along the entrance to the dirt road where the bunker was sunk into Dyke’s land, people began arguing in favour of allowing school bus drivers to carry guns.

On television the story was regularly spliced between coverage of state and national hearings on gun violence and mental health prompted by the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.

Prayer vigils sprang up. On Thursday members of a church youth group gathered to pray across the highway from the road that leads to the bunker.

The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland, 66, encountered Dykes as he drove children home from school on Tuesday. The bus stopped and Dykes jumped on, according to police reports based on interviews with children who were on the bus, and he demanded two boys between the ages of six and eight.

Mr Poland held Dykes at the front of the bus while children escaped out the back. He was hit with as many as four bullets from a nine-millimetre pistol. The well-liked driver was quickly called a hero by residents.

With the driver down, Dykes grabbed two children, police said. One escaped.

Ethan may have frozen or fainted, allowing Dykes to take him swiftly from the bus.

Dykes was scheduled to face charges of menacing in court on Wednesday after neighbours asserted that he shot at them in a dispute over someone driving on his property.

Meanwhile, the community did what small communities do. It did not take long for church-goers to start cooking, joining the Salvation Army and the Red Cross in efforts to feed more than 50 weary FBI negotiators and police officers – Robbie Brown & Kim Severson


About Jumpin' Jack Cash

Deep connections are the most important aspect of my existence. I don’t care if people don’t know what they want. I love books. I’m cynical of love stories, although I’m romantic. I adore gardens. I like women who challenge me. I love the rain as an excuse to stay inside and dream. I'm furiously impatient. If I ask you a question best to tell me the truth as I'm likely to already know the answer. I'm a carnivore. I continuously underestimate the magic of fresh flowers in my home. I love warm rain in the summer. My mood elevates to epic proportions when the sun shines. Tell me not to do something and I'll do it twice and take photos. Running is my antidepressant. I loathe lies. I rarely forgive a lie. Loyalty and honesty are my most noble virtues, and I value them more than anything in other people. I love to love, and am able to fall in love very quickly, although it's only ever happened once. I understood myself and fixed myself only after destroying myself. My greatest excitement comes from deliberately getting lost in foreign cities. I can be extremely loud and frighteningly silent. I hate insinuations. I love storms. Justice for all. I'm a proud man, but welcome the influence of the feminine soul. I have two sisters. I’m a dreamer. I’m a deep thinker. Don’t deal with guilt trips or drama that well. I'm extremely stubborn and persistent. I'm brilliant at keeping secrets. I love driving. I become absolutely and completely lost while watching a burning fire. When the toast pops from the toaster I’m never ready and shit myself. I play the guitar, but require much improvement. Solitude and warmth of the sun are perfect together. I’ve been married once and now divorced. I’m a music junkie. Chocolate mousse is the shit. I curse too much. I find it difficult to make friends. I spent four years as a firefighter. I’ve run my own company since 1991. Bright lights, big cities. I’ve been an executive producer of a feature film. Some people don’t care, and that’s the biggest let-down of the human race. There are cures and solutions for many evils, but no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings. The sound of the Italian language being spoken is as good as my favourite music. I hate corrupt cops. I relentlessly and passionately pursue anybody and anything that sets my soul on fire. I'm a dog lover, and all my dogs are considered family members. I have an obsession with photography. I have some close friends who are household names, but shall always remain anonymous. I’m crazy but not lazy. Losing a soulmate has hurt me badly. My two young sons are the nucleus of my universe. I love airports. I love freedom. If you are dishonest or disloyal, I can erase you from my life and memory immediately and permanently. I yearn to explore, dream about and discover as many friendships, deep connections and places, one possibly can in a lifetime.
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