Chapter One

Sam Jones sat in his recliner in Buffalo, Wyoming, watching Fox News out of Cheyenne. He thought about all the 2012 hoopla that had been going on for the last year, and how it reminded him of the scare of 2000, when everybody thought computers would crash. Well, here it was, Friday evening, December 21, 2012, and nothing had happened. “What a joke,” he muttered, “all that worrying . . . for what? Nothing, not even a cosmic fart.” He chuckled.

He got up out of his easy chair and started for the kitchen to get another beer. Stopping, he cocked his head to one side and listened. It sounded like a train, headed towards the house. The sound grew louder with every passing second. He felt his eyes bulging, and his heart began to race as he realized it wasn’t a train, but an earthquake.

The next thing he knew, he was flying across the room, landing on an antique table his wife had bought two years earlier in Vermont. “Oh, shit,” he cried out as he crashed into the 200-year-old table. He tried to stand up, but the house shook so violently, he was thrown back on the floor.

Thinking about his wife and two kids, Dave and Ashley, he panicked. “Linda, Linda,” he called. She had been in the kitchen starting dinner the last time he had seen her. Ashley had gone to her friend Jenny’s house for the night. Dave was somewhere upstairs.

He tried to crawl across the floor, but the house still bucked violently. “Dammit,” he yelled as he lunged off the floor in an attempt to get to the kitchen. The china hutch, sitting next to the kitchen door, came crashing down, barely missing him, shooting pieces of glass and china across the room like tiny missiles. A cloud of dust billowed up, stinging his eyes and making it hard to breathe. He crawled through the debris, wiping at his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the earthquake stopped. The lights had gone out. The house creaked in the eerie silence.

“Linda, where are you?” he yelled, pulling himself up with the door jamb. The late afternoon sunlight filtered through the kitchen window.

“I’m under the table.”

She stood up as he stumbled through the debris scattered across the floor. When he reached the table, he slipped and fell, hitting his head on the edge. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he growled, standing up and rubbing the growing lump. He quickly looked over Linda. Under her mussed blond hair, her face contorted with fear. Her lips trembled. A wild, feral look haunted her eyes. He’d never seen her this terrified. “Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay,” she spit. “I’m scared to death. I’m worried about my kids. I need to see if they’re okay.” She shoved her way past him.

Sam grabbed her arm. “I’m worried about the kids, too, but it’s not safe. You could get hurt. Let me get them.”

She slapped his hand away. “Leave me alone,” she hissed. “I have to go.”

They hadn’t been getting along for some time, but they had always tolerated each other. He knew how stubborn she could be, but now, she seemed to be on the edge of losing control.

Before Sam could stop her, a strong aftershock hit, rocking the house and knocking both of them to the floor. Linda let out an ear-piercing scream and Sam threw himself on top of her as the refrigerator doors flew open, spraying the contents of the fridge across the room, pelting both of them with food and liquids. He buried his face against Linda’s neck as the floor bucked and swayed. He could feel dirt and debris falling on his back. He prayed to God that the house wouldn’t collapse, or even worse, catch fire. He wondered how Dave was faring upstairs.

The aftershock lasted a few seconds. When it stopped, he rolled off Linda’s back and slowly stood up.

As he tried to help her up, she jerked away, yelling, “Leave me alone. I need to find Dave and Ashley.”

“Damnit, woman,” Sam shot back with anger, gripping both her arms and shaking her lightly, “get yourself together. I’ll go upstairs and get Dave. You stay here and get the emergency radio out of the pantry. We need to find out how bad the quake was.”

“Dammit, Sam,” she roared, “I don’t care what kind of damage the quake did. I want my kids.”

Trying to keep his temper in check, Sam took a deep breath. Still holding her, he said calmly, “We’ll get the kids, but we need to find out how much damage the quake caused. In case you’ve forgotten, Ashley’s at Jenny’s house. If we’re going to get her, I need to know how much damage the quake caused.” He released her, then yanked open a drawer and grabbed three dish towels.

Linda pursed her lips in defiance, turned, and started for the door.

He grabbed her arm again and jerked her around. “I told you I would go, dammit,” he snapped, “but I’m not going to sacrifice our safety in the process.” Squeezing her arm, he glared at her, daring her to defy him again.

With tears streaming down her face, the fire left her eyes. She nodded her head.

He released her and turned on the faucet to get the towels wet. The water dribbled to a stop. The main underground pipe must have broken in the quake. He walked to the mess that had spilled out of the fridge, got a bottle of water, and poured it over the towels. “Here, put this over your mouth and breathe through it. It’ll keep you from breathing in all this dust.”

She yanked the towel out of his hand and spun around, heading for the pantry.

He put the towel over his nose and mouth, then headed for the stairs. Carefully making his way through the living room and the debris scattered on the floor, he looked at the walls and ceiling, trying to gage how much damage the quake had done.

His grandfather had built the house on twenty acres in 1906, about ten miles south of Buffalo. After his dad had died, Sam inherited the property. Before moving in, he and Linda had gutted the house, completely remodeling it.

The house had been solidly built and, as far as Sam could tell now, it didn’t look like there had been too much damage. A couple of cracks showed in the plaster on the walls. Some of the windows had shattered. Otherwise, it looked like the house had come through pretty much intact.

He had only taken three steps up the stairs when the staircase loudly cracked and fell an inch. He grabbed the hand rail as his heart jumped to his throat. He hoped the stairs wouldn’t collapse under his weight. Carefully, he continued his way up, one step at a time. At the top, he let out a sigh of relief, only then realizing he had been holding his breath.

Dave’s door frame had twisted. The door wouldn’t open.

Sam put his shoulder to the door and threw his 160 pounds against it to force it open. Peering through the haze of dust filling the room, he saw the quake had tipped over the wooden bunk beds. He couldn’t see Dave. “Dave,” he yelled. “Dave . . . where are you?”

“Dad, thank God you’re here. I’m trapped under the bunk beds.”

Drawing closer, Sam saw Dave lying on the floor between the upper and lower bunks. He rushed across the room. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, but my legs are stuck. I can’t get enough leverage to get the beds off me.” Dave lay on his stomach with the bed covering him from the waist down.

Gripping the frame, Sam lifted it until Dave pulled his legs free. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Dave stood up and rubbed his legs. “I’m fine, just a little bruised. What about you and Mom? Are you two okay?”

“Your mom’s fine. I’m a little banged up, but I’ll live.” Sam held out the wet towel. “Here, put this over your nose and mouth, so you won’t be breathing in all this dust.”

Dave took it and tied it in place it over his lower face. “What happened? Was it an earthquake?”

“I’m pretty sure it was, but I’m not positive. Your mom has the emergency radio on downstairs. Let’s go see if she’s heard anything yet.”

At the top of the stairs, he turned to Dave. “Walk lightly when you go down. The steps were damaged and I’m not sure how much weight they can take. I’ll wait here until you get to the bottom, then I’ll come down.”

As Dave carefully made his way down the stairs, Sam watched and listened for signs that the staircase wouldn’t be able to support Dave’s weight. Even though he was only seventeen, at six-foot-two, he was six inches taller than Sam, and he weighed a solid 190 pounds. The stairs creaked and moaned, but held up.

As Sam cautiously made his way down, his mind raced ahead. I need to call Jenny’s dad and find out if Ashley’s okay. That is, if my cell phone still works. If not, I’ll drive the four-wheeler to get her.

As Sam walked into the kitchen, he saw Linda sitting on the floor with her head in her hands, rocking back and forth, saying, “No, no, no,” over and over.

Fearing she’d been hurt, he rushed to her. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Looking up, tears running down her face, she whispered, “Yellowstone.”

Puzzled, he asked, “Yellowstone? What about Yellowstone?”

“Yellowstone exploded.”

“What do you mean ‘Yellowstone exploded’?”

“The radio said Yellowstone exploded.”

“Dave, get the radio and see if you can figure out what she’s talking about.” He wiped the tears off of her face and realized she was in shock. My God, what’s going on? Is this a delayed reaction to the quake? Shit, this is all I need right now.

Dave picked the radio off of the floor and turned up the volume as Sam helped Linda get into a chair.

“ . . . say it is the worst sight they have ever seen,” said the voice on the radio. “Once again, this is Mark Pratt of KBUF radio in Buffalo with breaking news. It seems that the super-volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park has erupted. We don’t have many details yet, but we have been in contact with people by cell phone who are in Cody, and they are saying that this is the real deal folks.”

Sam and Dave looked at each other, too stunned at the news to talk.

“Witnesses say that the ash cloud is already at least two miles high and getting higher all the time. Uh, oh, . . . wait a minute, I’ve just been handed an update. This is from the governor’s office. Okay, this says that, even though it seems that the volcano has erupted, it hasn’t been confirmed yet. They don’t want anyone to panic. You are all to remain where you are and wait for further instructions.”

Dave turned the volume down. “If the volcano did erupt, we need to get out of here as soon as possible. We talked about this in geography class. My teacher said that, if the Yellowstone volcano erupted, the ash cloud would cover this area within hours, and anyone still here would be buried alive.”

Sam wasn’t completely sure the volcano had erupted, and he didn’t want to make a foolish decision or go running off without having all the facts. “We don’t know that the volcano erupted for sure. Maybe it was just a really big earthquake, and what they think is an ash cloud is really just dust. Let’s listen to the radio and see what else they have to say.”

Sam reached over and turned up the volume. He wanted to find out what had really happened, then he would go get Ashley.

“ . . . am on the phone with Nancy,” said the newscaster, “who lives in Greybull. Nancy, can you tell us what you see?”

“Well, we live on the west side of Greybull, in a beautiful Tudor home, on five acres, with a beautiful view to the west and— ”

“Nancy, I’m sorry to interrupt you. I’m sure you have a nice house, but could you just tell us what you can see?”

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. Well, I’m on my patio looking to the west and, even though it’s almost dusk, I can see a huge cloud rising up in the . . . oh, my God! No! No! Noooo!”

“Nancy . . . Nancy. . . . Well, we seem to have lost reception with Nancy. I hope she’s okay. Let’s move on to Mike. Mike, are you there?”

“Yes, Mark, I’m here.”

“Okay, Mike, where are you and what can you tell us?”

“First of all, I’m with the National Volcano Research Foundation, and I want to go on record here and say that I disagree with the statement from the government that you just read. The volcano did erupt, and everybody within four hundred miles in any direction of ground-zero needs to evacuate immediately. Within the initial blast zone, which we expect to be around fifty miles, nothing will survive. Anyone or anything that close is already dead. After the ash cloud gets beyond there, it will slow down to approximately fifty- or sixty-miles-per-hour, and will fan out in every direction. We estimate it will hit Buffalo in a little over one hour and will dump at least four to five feet of ash over the next few days. And it’s not just the ash that you have to worry about . . . this cloud also contains toxic gasses. Even if you cover your face, you’re not going to be safe unless you wear a gas mask.”

Sam’s mind was working overtime, trying to process the information he was hearing. It didn’t seem possible to him that the volcano had really erupted, or that they were in danger of being buried alive or asphyxiated by toxic gasses. He looked at Linda, who was still rocking back and forth. The earthquake had upset her pretty badly and, now, to hear this must have been too much for her mind to handle.

Dave turned the radio off and heavily sat down on a chair. “What are we going to do now, Dad?”

Sam felt torn. On the one hand, he wanted to get Ashley and make sure she was okay. On the other, if he took the time to go get her and bring her back, the ash cloud and toxic gasses might overtake them before they could get out of town.

He turned to Dave as he made his decision. “We need to get out of here as quickly as we can. You throw some blankets and sleeping bags in the truck. In fact, let’s throw in all the camping gear. If we have to camp out, we’ll be glad we brought it. I’m going to grab the guns and ammo, and maybe the bow and arrows. After you pack the camping stuff, grab some food, nothing perishable, canned stuff. Oh, and clothes, lots of warm clothes: coats, hats, gloves. It’s not snowing right now, but I don’t know what the weather’s going to be like for the next few days. If you can think of anything else we may need, throw it in. We may not need it all, but in this situation, I’d rather have it and not need it. I don’t know what we’ll be dealing with out there.”

“What about the fishing poles?” Dave asked. “Should we throw them in?”

“Yeah, good idea. I didn’t think about that, but you’re right. They might come in real handy if we need to fish for food before this is all over with.”

While Dave scurried to get the blankets and food, Sam found his cell phone and tried calling Jenny’s father’s cell phone. Nothing. No static, no busy signal. He stuck the phone in his pocket and gathered up everything he thought they might need to survive for a few days. He was thankful that he hadn’t traded off his Dodge Mega-Cab 4×4 truck for a regular cab pickup, like he had considered doing the previous year. Right now, the extra room was going to come in handy. The camper shell on the back would protect everything they could stash in the bed.

After loading the truck, Sam went inside and helped Linda to her feet. With his hand under her chin, he lifted her face.

Her normally sparkling blue eyes looked dull and listless.

Putting his hands on her shoulders, he gently shook her. “Linda. . . . Linda, can you hear me? Damn, Linda, I need you here with me right now. I’m not sure I can do this on my own.”

When she didn’t respond, he took her by the arm, guiding her out of the house. “Dave, why don’t you sit in the back seat so you can keep an eye on your mom.”

“Is she going to be all right?”

“I think so. She’s in shock. She needs time to adjust to what’s happening.”

“Okay. What about Ashley?” Dave asked, concern for his sister evident in his voice. “Are we going to swing by Jenny’s house and pick her up now?”

Sam started the truck. “Yeah, that’s what I figured we’d do.” If she’s alive.

Chapter Two

Thirty-two-year-old Lisa Baldwin just finished eating dinner when the house started shaking. The cupboard doors opened, spilling pots and pans, cans of food, and boxes of cereal, all over the kitchen floor. She crawled under the table and watched in dismay as the doors on the china hutch came open and her grandmother’s china slid out, shattering into millions of pieces on the tile floor. She curled up in the fetal position, protecting her face and head with her arms.

Lying there, she wondered what could have caused such a massive earthquake here in Wyoming. Her husband Shawn had talked a lot about the Yellowstone volcano before he had died. He was convinced it would erupt sometime in his lifetime. She used to kid him about having an obsession with it. He even went so far as to put together a Yellowstone emergency pack: a duffle bag full of survival gear. Now, thinking back on everything he’d said, she knew in her heart, this was the only thing that could have happened. Trying to keep her mind off of what was going on around her, and knowing that she would probably have to leave, she started making a mental list of what to take and what to leave behind.

When the earthquake stopped shaking the house, she crawled out from under the table. Enough light from the setting sun came through the windows to illuminate the room, even through the veil of dust, hanging in the air.

Lisa coughed. I need to stop breathing in all this dust. She looked around the kitchen. Finding a dish towel, she tied it around the lower half of her face and made her way through the mess into the living room. Coughing again, she realized the dish towel wasn’t keeping the dust out. Returning to the kitchen, she poured a bottle of water on it, then retied it on her face.

She got the battery-powered radio out of the hall closet and listened for information, while throwing a few things together, just in case she really did have to leave. She knew she would have to travel light, which meant leaving behind almost all of her personal belongings and keepsakes. She took two pictures: one of her mom and dad, and one of her wedding day with Shawn. She stuck the pictures, a coat, a jacket, and a pair of gloves in a backpack, along with Shawn’s Berretta 9mm, two extra magazines, and a box of shells. She grabbed a duffle bag and stuffed it full of clothes and a few personal items.

Hearing the reports on the radio confirming the eruption, she confirmed her own decision to leave, moving with more haste. She wanted to get on the road, ahead of the mad rush of humanity she knew would be leaving town.

She threw the backpack, the duffle bag, and Shawn’s Yellowstone survival pack in the passenger’s seat of the old 79 Ford F-250 4×4 Shawn had owned since he was in high school. Reaching behind the seat, she pulled out a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun that Shawn had kept in a special pouch, sewn on the back of the seat. It had a pistol-grip stock, and the barrels had been cut down to twelve inches, so that the overall length was less than sixteen inches. On their first date, when she’d asked Shawn why he carried the gun, he had told her it was for varmints, and not just the four-legged kind either.

She opened the glove compartment and removed a box of 12- gauge shells, setting them on the front seat next to the shotgun.

As she drove down the driveway, she glanced in her rearview mirror, taking one last look at the house, not knowing if she would ever return. A tear ran down her face as a flood of memories flashed through her mind.

Ten years earlier, just after they had married, Lisa and Shawn looked at the 200-acre ranch, which had been for sale. They fell in love with the place and made an offer on the spot. The elderly widow eagerly accepted their offer and, almost before they knew it, the young couple owned a cattle ranch ten miles north of Gillette, Wyoming.

The first eight years had been good; the ranch was making money. Lisa and Shawn were living their dream-life. The only thing missing were kids. Although they both wanted kids, they had decided to wait until they were in their mid-thirties. The last two years, however, had not been so good. Her parents, who lived in Gillette, had died within a year of each other. Then, six months ago, Shawn had been thrown from his horse and broke his neck. He died a week later.

After Shawn’s death, Lisa had hired Clem two days a week, four or five hours a day, to help her with the heavier work around the ranch.

“After what Clem tried to do to me today,” she said, thinking back on what had happened earlier that morning, “I hope I never see his sorry, drunken ass again.” As she drove away from the ranch, the incident with Clem ran through her mind.

* * *

She had gone into town to run some errands. As she pulled into the graveled yard next to Clem’s old black 1964 Cadillac, she noticed the gate she’d asked him to fix stood wide open, and her two milk cows were headed for the highway and freedom. “Son-of-a-bitch. . . . Clem!” she called out as she got out of the truck. “Clem, where are you?” She stormed into the barn. Hearing snores coming from one of the empty horse stalls, she looked inside.

Clem, head thrown back and mouth wide open, lay on his back on a pile of hay with an empty bottle of Jack Daniels next to him.

Lisa turned and picked up an empty water bucket. At the faucet by the watering trough, she filled it up. Back at the stall, she threw the water on Clem’s face and stepped back as he rolled onto his side, coughing and sputtering.

“Aw, what the hell’s goin’ on? Why’d you go an’ do that?”

“I’ll tell you why. Because you’re drunk. I’m not paying you to drink. I’m paying you to help me with the work around here.” She set the bucket on the ground. “Although, I don’t know why I pay you. You don’t do hardly anything, and what you do manage to get done is usually so screwed up, I have to go back and redo it.”

“Now, that’s not true that I don’t do nuthin’ ‘round here.” He sat up and brushed hay off his shirt. “Why, jus’ this mornin’, I fixed that section of fence on the north side of the hay field.”

She knew he was an alcoholic, but she had never seen him drink while he was working. Apparently, today he had decided to spend some time with his best friend Jack. “What about the loose gate to the corral? Did you fix that like I told you to?”

“Yupper, you bet. Fixed it up good as new.”

“Good as new. Really. Then, how come the cows are out,” she said, pointing toward the front yard with her voice raising, “and walking down the damned road?”

He stammered, “Well, I . . . umm . . . thought I fixed it. I’m sure . . . ”

“I don’t want to hear any more excuses. You’re fired. Get your stuff and get out of my sight.”

“What ‘bout my pay? I have money comin’ to me.”

Unlike most women, Lisa carried a wallet in her back pocket, which was a lot easier than carrying a purse everywhere she went. She pulled out some money and threw it on the hay. “Here’s two-hundred dollars, that’s more than I owe you. Consider the difference your severance pay.” She watched his eyes as he glanced at the money, then back to her.

His eyes moved slowly down her body, then back up again. “That ain’t enough,” he said, slowly getting to his feet. “I want more.”

“That’s crazy. I’m not giving you one cent more.”

“Money ain’t what I want,” he said as he lunged towards her.

She dodged to the side and stuck her foot out, tripping him.

He fell on his stomach and groaned.

As he rolled over, Lisa grabbed the pitchfork leaning against the stall and pointed the tines at him. “I’m not screwing around. Get ou . . . ”

Moving fast, he whipped his foot up and knocked the pitchfork out of her hands.

She froze in fear as she realized he wasn’t as drunk as he had let on. He had been putting on an act, trying to get her close enough to grab. Her heart skipped a beat. She swallowed hard as he stood up, looking a lot bigger than she had remembered. Her five-foot-six, one-hundred-thirty-pound frame could be easily overpowered by the two inches in height and fifty pounds he had on her.

“Now I’m gonna make you pay.” He threw a round-house punch.

She ducked, but not fast enough.

His fist grazed the side of her head with enough force to stagger her. He grabbed her shoulders, trying to force her down to the ground.

Lisa screamed and kicked out with her cowboy boot, connecting with his right shin.

He let out a howl of rage, grabbed his leg, and balanced on his left foot.

She kicked his left shin, eliciting another roar of pain from him and causing him to fall. Turning, she ran from the barn, fearing the pain she had inflicted on him wouldn’t keep him down for long.

“You bitch,” he called after her. “I’m gonna kill you now. I’m gonna kill you nice and slow.”

She ran to the truck and threw the door open. Flipping the seat forward, she grabbed the shotgun from its pouch. Pulling it out, she turned just as Clem staggered to a stop ten feet away. “Get off my land,” she screamed, pointing the gun at him. “Now!”

He glanced from her eyes to the gun and back, then took a hesitant step forward.

She pointed the gun at his legs and pulled back one of the hammers. “I swear to God, I’ll shoot you in the leg if you don’t leave right now.”

“No need to get upset, sweetheart. Put the gun down and let’s talk about this. I’m sure we can settle our differences without you shooting me.” He took another step towards her.

She moved the barrel of the shotgun slightly to the right and pulled the trigger.

Clem grabbed his thigh and fell on the ground. “Ya shot me! I can’t believe ya shot me. Call an ambulance. I need to get to the hospital.”

For a second, she wondered if she really did shoot him. I’m sure I moved the gun far enough away. If anything, maybe one or two pellets might have hit him. “Let me see your leg,” she said, keeping the gun pointed at him.

He moved his hands.

She could see blood on his pants, but not very much. “You don’t need an ambulance. You might have been hit by a couple of stray pellets, but you’ll live. Now,” she said with as much bravado as she could muster, “get up and get out of here.”

She stood her ground until Clem’s Cadillac turned onto the main highway and headed towards town. She herded the cows back into the corral and, as she shut the gate, she realized Clem had fixed it. He had just forgotten to shut it.

* * *

Now, driving down the highway, feeling sad and alone, her head filled with thoughts. I wonder how long it will take before the ash is gone and I will be able to return? I wonder if I will even want to come back? There are so many memories there, good and bad.

She sighed and thought about Clem. Damn, that was too close. I never want to do that again. I thought I would really have to shoot him. Well, I guess I did shoot him . . . kind of. I wonder if he’ll report me to the sheriff. If he does, it’ll be his word against mine. Everybody knows he’s a drunk and a troublemaker.

She took a deep breath. Well, it’s over now. There’s no sense in worrying about it. I’ll never see him again. . . . I hope.

Chapter Three

Sam drove to Breezy Acres, where Jenny’s parents lived. The subdivision had been developed three years earlier by Sam’s land-development company. Only a quarter of a mile from Sam’s house, it was close enough for the two fourteen-year-old girls to walk to each other’s homes.

As Sam drove through the neighborhood, the destruction caused by the quake looked eerily like something a tornado had blasted through the area. In the dim light of the setting sun, he could see that all the homes were heavily damaged. Many had completely collapsed, with debris strewn across the carefully tended yards and into the streets. Surprised to see so few people about, all wandering around in a daze, he assumed that many had not made it out of their homes.

As he got closer to Jenny’s street, his uneasiness grew. He gripped the steering wheel so tight, his knuckles turned white. She’s going to be okay, he told himself as he approached the intersection. He turned the corner and Jenny’s house came into sight. His heart sank. The house was completely demolished, a big pile of broken wood and twisted metal.

He pulled into the driveway. “Dave,” he said, “stay in the truck with your mom.” Sam put on his coat, grabbed a flashlight, and walked towards the house while looking for signs of life. He climbed the pile of debris and called out Ashley’s name, not really expecting an answer.

He shined the light around and found a small opening where the roof had not completely collapsed. Shining the light into the hole, the passage seemed to go down at least ten feet or more. For just a fraction of a second, he debated about going down. On one hand, the chances of finding anybody alive seemed exceptionally low. If he went down and was killed, what would happen to Linda and Dave? But, on the other hand, if he didn’t go down and look, he would probably have nightmares about Ashley being alive and hurt, crying out for him, calling out for him not to leave her behind. Deep down, he knew there was only one choice.

He slowly entered the hole and had only gone about six feet when a small aftershock shook the remains of the house. The whole mass groaned and shifted. He looked up at the mangled roof, hanging over his head, and hoped it wouldn’t collapse and trap him. When the aftershock subsided, he let out a sigh of relief and continued moving down. To his surprise, the hole had enlarged.

About four feet down, Sam saw an arm . . . a young girl’s arm. In disbelief, he scrambled downward. He gently picked up the arm with his work-roughened hands and checked for a pulse. Nothing. Setting the hand down, he noticed a bracelet on the wrist. He’d seen it before. About six months ago, Linda had taken Ashley on a mother-daughter trip to Cheyenne. As a special treat, Linda had bought them matching bracelets.

As Sam held the small hand in his, tears ran down his face. He couldn’t even begin to accept the fact that his little girl was gone. This can’t be happening, he thought as he squeezed the small, delicate hand.

As he was about to let go, it squeezed back.

What the hell? Is she really still alive or am I just imagining things? He squeezed again and felt another squeeze. Ecstatic, he let go and slowly started moving debris. After clearing the upper half of her body, he looked at her face and was surprised to see her eyes open. “Ash, are you okay?” He brushed the blond hair out of her eyes and saw her look of confusion.

“I think so. What happened, Daddy?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it was an earthquake.”

“An earthquake?”

“Yeah, but we need talk about this later. Right now, we need to see if we can get you out of here. Can you move your legs, or are they trapped?”

She shifted her legs and looked up at him. “They aren’t trapped. I can move them fine.”

“Do you hurt anywhere, like your neck or your back?”

“No, I don’t think so. Well, maybe my head. I think I hit it on something.”

“When you hit your head, did you lose consciousness?”

“Yeah, I just started coming around when you found me.”

“As long as your neck doesn’t hurt, you should be fine. Okay, I’m going to try to lift you out. If you feel any pain or if your legs get stuck, tell me, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

Sam reached in, took her under her arms, and lifted. He was surprised that she slid out easily. Standing her next to him, he looked her over to confirm that she didn’t have any injuries, just a few scratches and a bump on her head. He wondered if Jenny could have been as lucky. “Ash, where were you and Jenn when the quake hit?”

“I was in Jenn’s room and . . . she’d just gone downstairs to get some drinks and munchies.”

“What about her parents and her brothers? Were they home?”

“I think they were all in the living room watching T.V.”

He sighed, knowing there was no way Jenn or her family could still be alive under the rubble. The only thing that had saved Ashley was the fact that she had stayed on the upper level, where a pocket had formed around her.

“Do you think they’re still alive, Daddy?”

“I’m sorry, Ash. I don’t think they could have survived.”

She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Couldn’t we try something, anything, just to make sure?”

Noticing she was only wearing jeans and a t-shirt, he took off his coat and put it over her shoulders. “I guess we could, but there isn’t a lot we can do. There’s no way we can dig through all this debris.”

“Can we at least call out her name and see if anybody answers?”

Although he felt it would be useless and take up valuable time, he thought maybe they should spend a few minutes calling out, just in case.

They slowly made their way through and over broken boards and twisted metal. Calling out Jenny’s name, stopping, and listening for a response every few feet, they moved safely away from the house.

“I’m sorry, Ash, but I don’t think any of them made it.”

She stifled a sob, trying not to cry.

Sam knew he was running out of time. If he wanted to get out of town before the ash cloud hit, he needed to get going. He put his arm around Ashley and gently lead her away from the house. When they got to the truck, Sam said, “Dave, I want you to ride up front with me. Ash, why don’t you ride in the back seat with your mom? That way, if she needs anything, you will be able to help her.”

Ashley’s eyes opened wide with fear when she saw her mother.

Linda sat staring straight ahead, mumbling to herself. Her blond hair stuck up in a mess of knots. She was covered from head to toe with dust, grime, and pieces of food.

“What’s wrong with her?” Ashley cried. “Is she hurt? Is she going to be okay?”

“She’s going to be fine. She’s just in shock. A little rest and she’ll be good as new.”

Ashley climbed in and slid next to Linda. “Don’t worry Mom, I’m here now. I’ll take care of you.” She smoothed down Linda’s hair.

Sam took a last look around the neighborhood. At the moment, he didn’t see anyone. He jumped in the driver’s seat and, as he started the truck, Dave said, “So what now, Dad? Where are we going?”

“South. We need to go at least four hundred miles to get clear of the ash cloud. I figure somewhere in central Colorado should be far enough.” I just hope we don’t have any problems along the way.

Chapter Four

Lisa needed to stop in Casper to fill up with gas and buy food for later. With the dark streets, she assumed the power was out in a large section of Casper and the surrounding area. “I hope I can find a station that still has power,” she said out loud, looking out the window for a sign of lights. “If not, I may have to siphon gas out of somebody’s car.”

The drive hadn’t been bad. She’d begun to see patches of snow along the roads. Traffic had been minimal. She assumed most people either didn’t know what had happened, or were putting off leaving until it was confirmed. She’d heard conflicting reports on the radio. Two stations reported the incident as just an isolated earthquake and told people to stay in their homes. The other stations reported that the volcano did erupt, causing the earthquake. Half the experts on the radio told people to stay where they were, while the other half told people to leave. No wonder nobody’s leaving town; nobody knows what the hell’s going on. I’m glad I left when I did. As soon as all these people start leaving, the roads will be a bitch to travel on.

Lights ahead on the highway got her attention. When she drew closer, she saw a small gas station/convenience store and pulled in, remotely wondering why the power was still on in this part of town and nowhere else.

After swiping her credit card and filling her tank, she went to the women’s bathroom, located on the side of the building. Washing her hands, she looked in the mirror. God, what a mess I am. Dust clung to her face and disheveled dark-brown hair. Bending over, she shook as much dust out of her hair as possible. Using her fingers, she combed through it, trying to make it look presentable. She washed her face, glad she never wore much makeup. She brushed the dust off her clothes.

Heading into the store, she gathered up all the canned food, potato chips, and beef jerky she could carry.

“Are you having a party or something?” the young man behind the counter asked as he rang up the food and put it in plastic bags.

“Haven’t you heard what happened?” she said, a little shocked.

“Oh, you mean the volcano thing? Yeah, I heard about it, but my dad has a friend who works for the park service. He told my dad there’s nothing to worry about. He said we’re far enough south, we won’t be affected.”

“I’m not taking any chances. I’m getting as far from here as possible.” After paying the clerk, she picked up her bags and walked out.

She piled the food on the passenger’s seat and, as she pulled out of the parking lot, an older black Cadillac pulled in. It looked suspiciously like Clem’s car. She couldn’t see who was driving, but she got an uneasy feeling that it was him. A flash of fear welled up inside her. Did he follow me? Her hands started to shake as she looked in the mirror. No, why would he? It’s just my imagination playing tricks on me. I’m still upset about the whole incident, that’s all. I’m sure there are lots of cars around that look like that.

As she pulled onto the road, she took a quick look over her shoulder. Before a sign blocked her view, she caught a glimpse of a man in a cowboy hat walking into the store. He was limping.