MIDLAND CITY, Ala. -- Many things hold little Southern towns together. There is a common love of the region, the peace that comes with a rural life and, often, prayer.
In this town of 2,300 in the heart of peanut country, people drew on all of those as they endured what by Thursday night had stretched into an unimaginable situation.
A relative newcomer to town -- a man who had fought in Vietnam and appeared to harbor a deep distrust of government and a grudge against every neighbor -- shot and killed a bus driver, grabbed a 5-year-old boy named Ethan and then disappeared with the boy into a well-equipped bunker he had spent several months digging in his yard.
By all accounts, the man whom neighbors and a sheriff's office official identified as Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, had no connection to the boy. "As far as we know, there is no relation at all," said Michael Senn, a pastor at the Midway Assembly of God Church, who comforted some of the children who escaped from the bus and ran to his church. "He just wanted a child for a hostage situation."
Like so many clerics in this Bible-reading community, Mr. Senn has been leading prayer services as the hours stretched into days. By Thursday night, no end was in sight.
The FBI stayed in contact with Mr. 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."
Mr. Dykes, neighbors said, has been known to stay in his bunker for as long as eight days. Some said they watched him build it, carrying cinder blocks and digging for hours.
No one is sure exactly why he took the boy.
"He don't care too much for the government," Chief Arrington said. "That's all we know."
The boy, whom his mother calls "love bug," is reportedly doing well in the bunker, Alabama state Sen. Harri Anne Smith said in a television interview early Thursday. She and state Rep. Steve Clouse have met with Ethan's mother, and said food and medication that her son needed for autism was delivered to the bunker through a 60-foot plastic pipe about 4 inches in diameter. Still, Mr. Clouse said, the family is "just holding on by a thread."
As it became clear that the standoff would continue -- the bunker was well-supplied with food and, apparently, a television and lights -- the national media began arriving. Through Wednesday and into Thursday, residents watched as their tiny town, where the National Peanut Festival in nearby Dothan is usually the biggest event of the year, was a constant presence on national television.
The killing of the bus driver and the resulting standoff soon became one more point of discussion in the national debate about guns. Most local people 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 Mr. Dykes' land, people began arguing in favor of allowing bus drivers to carry guns.
"I follow the old Boy Scout's motto, 'Be prepared,' " said James Alexander, 72, who said he sleeps with a gun by his pillow. "I cannot foresee a way to prevent this without shooting the guy."
Although reporters were held across the highway from a red dirt road that leads into the little neighborhood of about 13 houses, and there were no major developments to report Thursday, the televised story was regularly spliced between coverage of state and national hearings on gun violence and mental health prompted by the December shootings in Newtown, Conn.
"It's crazy," said high school junior Tyler Cobb, one of more than 90 students who met Wednesday to pray for Ethan. "It happened in Connecticut. But it really hits home when it happens here. Our little town on CNN. It's just weird."
Prayer vigils sprung up like farm stands in the summer here. Five were held Wednesday, and a church youth group's members gathered to pray Thursday across the highway from the road that leads to the bunker. Prayer took hold on social media sites, too. A Twitter call to pray for Ethan gained steam.
The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, encountered Mr. Dykes as he drove children home from school Tuesday. The bus stopped, and Mr. Dykes jumped on, according to police reports based on interviews with children on the bus, and then he demanded two boys between ages 6 and 8. Poland held Mr. Dykes at the front of the bus while 21 children escaped out the back. He was hit with as many as four bullets from a 9 mm pistol. The well-liked driver was quickly called a hero by residents.
With the driver down, Mr. Dykes grabbed two children, police said. One escaped. Ethan may have frozen or fainted, allowing Mr. Dykes to take him swiftly from the bus.
Tim Byrd, chief investigator with the Dale County sheriff's office, told the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog that Mr. Dykes was a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who "did not trust the government." He was also scheduled to face charges of menacing in court Wednesday, after neighbors asserted that he shot a gun at them in a dispute over someone driving on his property.
Meanwhile, the local community did what small communities do. It did not take long for churchgoers to start cooking, joining the Salvation Army and Red Cross in efforts to feed more than 50 weary FBI negotiators and law enforcement officers from at least eight agencies.
"Everybody wants to help; everybody is talking about the boy," said Lisa Boatwright, a nearby church's secretary. "But there's only one thing we can do: Pray this ends safely."