– 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