Ernest J. Gaines, who is deservedly well-known as the author of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," has written in "A Gathering of Old Men" a Deep South variation upon the great theme of "Seven Samurai"--a story about people who have been weak and downtrodden all their lives but who suddenly seize an opportunity to stand firmly on their own feet. He has written it well, with humor, a strong sense of drama and a compassionate understanding of people who find themselves in opposing positions.

The place is rural Louisiana and the time is the 1970s. A white man, a Cajun named Beau Boutan, has been shot to death on the farm he operates; in the memory of one old man, it is the first time "where a black man had killed a white man in this parish," and it is generally assumed that the killer is Mathu, a man "up in his eighties, head white as it could be, but you didn't see no trembling in his face, in his hands." But inspired by a tough young white woman named Candy Marshall, daughter of the family that owned the land for years, the other old black men of the farm refuse to let Mathu take the blame; instead, each man fires a No. 5 shell in his 12-gauge shotgun, then presents the empty shell as evidence that he is the killer. They have seized the moment as their "chance to stand" or, as one man puts it to his frightened wife:

"He works in mysterious ways . . . Give a old nigger like me one more chance to do something with his life. He gived me that chance, and I'm taking it, I'm going to Marshall. Even if I have to die at Marshall. I know I'm too old, maybe even crazy, but I'm going anyhow. And it ain't nothing you can do about it. Pray if you want to. Pray for all us old fools. But don't try to stop me. So help me, God, woman, don't try to stop me."

They are most unlikely heroes: "Tired old men trying hard to hold up their heads." But their determination is fueled not merely by a shared conviction that a cruel man has been dealt a blow he earned; they also realize that the time of arbitrary, highhanded treatment from white overlords is over--that the civil rights revolution has found its way to the most distant corners of the Black Belt. So when Sheriff Mapes appears ("He was one of those great big guys, exactly what the people up North and in Hollywood thought a small-town Southern sheriff would look like"), they are ready for him; each man steps forward to proclaim his guilt and his readiness to go to jail.

This is not what Mapes wants. He knows that if he has to take a busload of old black men into town, the white reaction could be rough. "I don't want any trouble on this place," he says. "That Baton Rouge crowd's already getting drunk for that game tomorrow. Some of them wouldn't want anything better than a necktie party tonight." Ernest Gaines is smart enough to know that a fellow who looks like a stereotypical southern sheriff may not in fact be a stereotype, and so he has created in Mapes a man who is quite ready to sympathize with the outraged blacks, quite willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of their grievances--and quite worried that a party of aggrieved Cajuns, fueled by booze, will wreck his efforts to keep the peace.

His fears are quite solidly grounded. As the Boutan family gathers to discuss what action to take, the possibility of vigilante violence becomes entirely real. The family itself is deeply divided, between younger members who know that the times have changed and older ones who cling to "family honor," but there are other whites who simply have a taste for trouble and see in the Boutan killing a chance to indulge it. Thanks to them matters move to a conclusion that is indeed violent, but satisfyingly apt as well.

Many of the elements of this story are familiar, to melodrama as well as to southern fiction, but Gaines has made the most of them. He is a clear-eyed writer who doesn't allow his characters to get away with anything; his depiction of Candy Marshall, who loves her black folks so much she just can't stand to stop running their lives, is especially subtle and amusing, but he has an equally keen eye for the bravado that is mixed in with the genuine bravery of the old black men. He uses a couple of dozen narrators, each of whom he imbues with a voice that is distinct and believable. Not least, he knows how to tell a story, and "A Gathering of Old Men" is a good one.