The Hermit 5


The Hermit - Chapter 5

For the first time since the loss of his family, Neal didn’t suffer through the anniversary of that day alone. Elizabeth was there to console him.

They were married in January, during a break in the weather, at the trading center at Carmello’s store. Neal gave Elizabeth his mother’s wedding ring during the ceremony. After spending three days isolated in the cave house, the two came out to find two feet of snow on the ground, though the compound had been cleared, thanks to Dwayne and Chuck and the Toolcat.

They were talking to Dwayne about how things went during their absence when Chuck came over and interrupted them. “Think you should take a listen to the shortwave.”

Dwayne, Neal, and Elizabeth followed Chuck back to the trailer he used and gathered around behind him when he sat down in front of a desk containing several items of communications equipment.

Chuck keyed the microphone of an amateur radio. “Hello Wyoming. Are you still there?”

“For a while, Missouri.”

“Would you repeat what you were saying a while ago? The leaders of our group are here now.”

Neal and the others listened, shocked by what they heard. The Yellowstone caldera was acting up in a big way. The locals were packing up and leaving the area, most of them heading west, actually going through Yellowstone Park to get on the west side, expecting an eruption to dump millions of tons of ash eastward, with the prevailing winds.

“Any way to estimate when, or even if, it will erupt?” Neal asked. Chuck relayed the question.

“No way to tell. But one of the experts that was here monitoring it before the war survived. He’s the one telling us to run.”

“That’s so far away,” Elizabeth said. “Would it actually affect us? Except for some orange sunsets?”

“We could get ash,” Neal replied. “Lots of it. And really bad winters for a few years.”

“Worse than we have now?” Elizabeth asked, surprised at Neal’s answer.

“Yes. Much worse. I think we’d better plan for the worst.” Then, to Chuck he said, “Tell him thanks for the warning. We’re going to take measures here for a worst case scenario. We hope he gets out or that nothing happens.”

As Chuck talked to the man in Wyoming, Neal left the trailer and Dwayne and Elizabeth followed.

“What are you thinking, Neal?” Elizabeth asked. “What else can we do, that we haven’t already done?”

“That salt. I want that salt, in Arkansas,” Neal replied. “And all the wheat, corn, and hay we can get up here before anything happens. All the meat we can get butchered, dried, smoked, or canned. A couple more milk cows and a bull, if we can get enough corn and hay.”

Neal had been staring off into space. He turned and looked at Dwayne and Elizabeth. “Do any of the others have people they might want to bring to the property?”

Dwayne and Elizabeth exchanged a look. “Yes. I think there are a couple of romances going on,” Dwayne replied. “They may want the person, and perhaps even the person’s family, to come up here.”

Neal frowned. “I don’t know how many we can take in.”

“I think… possibly… eight or nine more. Maybe ten,” Elizabeth said, looking to Dwayne for confirmation.

Dwayne nodded. “No more than that. Family, anyway. If very many find out what we’re doing, they may want to be a part of it.”

Neal nodded. “Okay. We’ll deal with that if it happens. I’m going to get the Suburban ready, and the utility trailer, and head for Arkansas.”

“I’ll go with you,” Elizabeth quickly said.

“No. I need you here coordinating everything. You and Dwayne and Chuck.”

Elizabeth wanted to protest, but Neal had a point. The Magnews were a hard working bunch, but they tended to need strong leadership. It would be better if she stayed. “Okay,” she told Neal.

When Neal turned to walk away Elizabeth and Dwayne realized he meant right now. He was off to get the Suburban ready, just as he’d said.

Four hours later, Neal corralled Dwayne and Elizabeth again. “If something happens while I’m gone, batten down the hatches and get everyone in the cave. I’d like to protect the stock in the tunnel, but I don’t know if we’ll have time. The other steps take precedence. I will see you in about a week.” Neal kissed Elizabeth, and held her in a hug for long seconds. Then he was in the Suburban and off to Arkansas.

Neal needn’t have hurried. He was back with the Suburban and trailer, both loaded to the gills with salt, in six days. Nothing had happened during that time. Chuck had not been able to give him an update while he was on the road, since the man in Wyoming had bugged out to the west and had not set up a radio again apparently.

Shortly after he drove through the gate to his property, during a heavy snow, Neal could just make out stacks of baled hay and straw here and there. There were also half a dozen semi trailers, three of which were grain trailers.

Pulling into the compound, Neal noticed three more large travel trailers and another Class A motorhome parked in the Magnew camp.

Even with the snow coming down, when he got close enough, he saw several women working around the open wood fire in the middle of the trailer compound. There were three large pressure canners suspended over the fire.

Neal parked the Suburban and went looking for Elizabeth or Dwayne. The women at the fire told him they were in the cave. Neal hurried that way. He found them in the outer chamber, discussing what to do to accommodate the family if they had to take shelter inside.

After a quick kiss of greeting, Elizabeth asked Neal, “How did it go? You get the salt?”

“All I had coming, plus I bought some more. That tobacco is more valuable than gold, to some people. You two have been busy. I saw the stuff near the gate when I came in.”

“I’m afraid I used some of your gold…” Elizabeth said.

Neal cut her off. “Our gold.”

“Well, we used some of it to get what you requested. Some of the tobacco and sugar, too. Two semi-trailer loads of corn and one of wheat.”

“That’s good,” Neal replied. “If Yellowstone goes, things are going to be tough for a couple of years. I saw some of the ladies doing some canning.”

“Yes. We were able to get quite a bit of jerked meat from Angelo,” Elizabeth said. “He’s processing a couple of hogs we got. We owe him some salt. We got one steer and butchered ourselves. That’s what we’re canning.”

“Any luck with another milk cow and a bull?” Neal asked.

“In the spring,” Dwayne said. “I couldn’t find anyone willing to trade anything that valuable now. We should be able to get a bull calf and at least one or two young cows next spring. Assuming the best.”

Neal shook his head. “Best we can do, then.”

Dwayne grinned. “Did make a deal for something else, though. You know Harry Cunningham. He’s been making dehydrators and smokers. He’s coming up tomorrow with everything needed to set us up with four big dehydrators and a large smoke house. Again, assuming the best.”

“Good ideas. How’s he getting up here?” Neal asked.

“He’s a handy rascal. Built his own wood gas generator for his old pickup.”

“Okay. I guess we’ve done everything we can do. I just hope we’re wasting our time with all these additional preparations.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than all three felt a slight tremor.

“Did you feel that?” Neal asked the others.

“I did,” said Dwayne. “New Madrid Fault Zone, you think?”

“I hope so,” Neal replied, “Bad as it would be.”

Another, much larger tremor rocked them. “We’d better check on the others,” Neal said, heading for the cave mouth.

There was minor pandemonium at the canning fire. “I’m sorry!” said one of the women as Neal, Dwayne, and Elizabeth ran up.

“It’s not your fault, Caroline,” Elizabeth assured the young woman, distraught over the pressure canner now lying on its side outside the fire pit. The tripod supporting it had tipped, dumping the canner.

“Was that an earthquake?” someone asked.

“I hope so,” Neal said. “But if it was Yellowstone going, we’re in for some rough times, starting in a couple of days. I suggest everyone finish up what they’re doing, and then start battening down the hatches for ash.”

“You really think we’ll get any, that far away?” asked Chuck, who had come out of his trailer after the tremors.

“We’re around the limit of ash fall from one of the largest of the previous eruptions. I’m more worried about the affect the fine ash that doesn’t fall right away will have on the weather.”

Suddenly a deep, thunderous roaring sound enveloped them. It lasted for several seconds. People were looking around at each other.

“That would be the Yellowstone Caldera in an explosive eruption,” Neal said when the sound faded.

“What do we do?” asked one of the younger women.

“Just keep plugging along until the ash gets here, if it does. Could be a couple of days. The less we’re exposed to the ash, the better.” Neal paused, and then said, “Just do everything to close up everything to eliminate as much dust infiltration as possible in all the buildings. And we’d better move plenty of feed close to the animal sheds.”

The group broke up, to do as Neal suggested. Neal turned to Dwayne. “Let’s unload the salt and then move some of that corn, hay, and straw.”

Dwayne went to get the Toolcat, and Neal went to the Suburban. Elizabeth, without an assignment from Neal, decided to get started on a meal for everyone. It would soon be noon and with everyone hard at work, they would need food.

“I love this machine!” Dwayne said, as he loaded Neal’s utility trailer with bales of hay, and then the trailer for the Toolcat. Neal hooked up the Toolcat trailer to the Toolcat when Dwayne had it loaded, and backed up to it.

They made several trips moving the hay and some straw. Then, with the bucket on the Toolcat instead of the forks, they began to transfer corn. Neal controlled the bottom gate of one of the corn trailers, filling the Toolcat bucket, which Dwayne then dumped into the trailers. Unlike the hay and straw, which Dwayne both loaded and unloaded with the Toolcat, the corn had to be shoveled out of the trailers by hand onto the large sheet of plastic the two laid down first. It was covered with another sheet of plastic and weighted down.

Elizabeth’s lunch of soup and sandwiches was well received, as one and then another stopped what they were doing for a quick bite to eat. Everyone worked till dark, and turned in early, to be able to get up early the next morning to continue the work.

Dwayne was one of the first up. He cleared the compound of the snow accumulation that had fallen during the night, using the Toolcat, and then went down to the gate to let Harry in when he showed up.

Harry was an early bird and Dwayne didn’t have to wait long. He led the way to the compound, Harry following in his truck, which had a tandem axle trailer attached. The trailer was loaded with the parts for the dehydrators and smoke house.

Neal, Dwayne, and Chuck all pitched in to help Harry. “What’s the rush?” he suddenly asked.

Dwayne looked over at Neal, who nodded. “Harry,” Dwayne then said, “We got word a week ago that the Yellowstone caldera was acting up. Did you feel those earthquakes and hear that sound yesterday?”

Harry nodded. “Figured it was New Madrid acting up. Though that was sure some loud sound.”

“We think it was the Yellowstone Super Volcano erupting.”

“What’s that mean to us? New Madrid I can kind of understand. But Yellowstone… That’s what? A thousand miles from here?”

Dwayne nodded. “We might get some ash from it. But mostly Neal is worried about a weather change because of it.”

“Don’t make sense. But…” Harry looked around the compound. “You guys sure have done okay for yourselves after war. Must know something. What should I do?”

“Just get ready for some ash,” Neal said. “It’s very abrasive so don’t run engines without cleaning the filter often. And if you’re out in it, use a dust mask. And stock up as much food as you can. It may be difficult to grow much for a while.”

Harry looked anxiously to the northwest, and then at the project he was working on. He looked at Neal then and opened his mouth to speak, but Neal spoke first.

“You finish up here and we’ll double you pay, and give it to you in food that will keep for a while.”

He didn’t hesitate. Harry nodded and said, “Let’s get this show on the road.”

They picked up the pace, but Harry made sure that everything was done to his specification. Neal helped him load up his tools when they had everything installed while Dwayne and Chuck went to get the food promised Harry.

With the food loaded, Harry shook hands all around, got into his truck, and followed Dwayne to the gate. With a wave of good-bye, Dwayne closed the gate and hurried back to the compound.

The expected snow began as he parked the Toolcat. Neal was there and they covered the machine with a tarp. Suddenly Neal opened his hand and held it palm up to catch some of the snow. He rubbed it with his fingers. “Snow mixed with ash,” He told Dwayne. “Let’s get all the youngsters into the cave. I don’t want them getting the least little bit of ash in their lungs. It could give them problems for the rest of their lives. Everyone else wears masks and goggles outside for the duration.”

Neal had a few masks in the Lusby and went to get one for himself and one for Elizabeth. She was just coming up to the little house. “There’s something about the snow…” she said.

“Ash,” Neal said. “Come on. I want you in a mask.” The two went inside and Neal took a box of 3M P-100 masks out of a cabinet. “Here,” he said, handing Elizabeth one of the masks. He took out a pair of dust goggles and handed them to Elizabeth after she had her mask on.

“What about you?” she asked, adjusting the headband of the goggles to suit her.

“There are some more goggles in the cave.” Neal told Elizabeth exactly were they were in the storeroom, and more masks.

She left, but was back in just a few minutes with the goggles in hand. She handed them to Neal and he put them on. She’d brought more goggles and masks and began to hand them out to the adults that wouldn’t be going into the cave immediately.

Elizabeth helped Neal get the canvas cover for the Suburban out of its storage container. They put it on and made sure it was secure. The mixture of snow and ash was coming down harder now.

It took everyone still outside to get the animals moved to the tunnel, to get them out of the ash and snowfall. Neal didn’t want any of them grazing any at all until after the major ash fall was finished. More for the fact that they could inhale the ash from the ground while they were eating, than worry about the ash being ingested.

“We’ll feed them later,” Neal said. “Everybody back to the compound and inside,” Neal called out. “Keep an FRS radio on.”

Neal and Elizabeth went into the Lusby, as the others took to their trailer or motorhome. Neal checked with Dwayne, who was in the cave with Purity and a few other adults, taking care of the younger children.

“You battened down in there?” Neal asked.

“We are. Everyone has a sweater or jacket and is fine. Some of the older kids are asking about doing their chores.”

“Tell them we’ll take care of the outdoor chores,” Neal replied. “For the next few days just what chores need to be done there in the cave are all they have to worry about.”

“Okay, Neal. If you need me to help, let me know.”

“Will do.” Neal set the radio aside. He looked at Elizabeth. “Any ideas how to pass the time until we feed the stock?”

Elizabeth just smiled and sat down on his lap.

When they went out, well before sunset, though it was already quite dim out, both immediately noticed the fact that there was more ash in the mix coming down than snow. “If it doesn’t get worse than this, we’ll be in great shape,” Neal said, his voice slightly muffled by the P-100 mask.

Elizabeth nodded and the two began the job of getting feed from where it was stockpiled just outside the tunnel inside to all the animals. Hay and grain was distributed, put into the feed boxes that Dwayne had already moved to the tunnel with the Toolcat. Neal was thankful that someone had thought about the rabbits and chickens while he was gone. There were temporary cages for the rabbits, and a fenced area for the chickens.

Neal and Elizabeth put down straw for bedding. Besides the feed boxes, Dwayne had already moved suitable water containers into the tunnel. All Elizabeth had to do was fill them from the water spigot fed from the upper well. All the animals would be able to drink their fill.

Neal was milking the cow while Elizabeth was filling the water containers. When he was done, he poured the milk into the hog slop trough to supplement the grain. He didn’t want to deal with the fresh milk at the moment, and it just fattened up the pigs that much faster.

Neal left one light fixture on, and he and Elizabeth walked back up to the Lusby and settled in for the night.

The next morning, when Neal awoke, he had to look at his watch to confirm that it was, in fact, morning. There was barely any light outside. Leaving Elizabeth sleeping peacefully, Neal dressed, put on his mask and goggles, coat, then his wide brimmed hat, before going outside. The snow was dark grey with ash. What little snow there was at the moment. What was falling was mostly ash now.

Neal looked around. There was a three inch accumulation of the ash and snow mixture. Neal thought about getting the Toolcat out to clear the area, but decided it better to wait until the ash fall tapered off before doing so.

He’d just have to do it again, and he didn’t want to stir the ash up anymore than necessary. The snow was actually going to be a benefit in the cleanup, by keeping the ash moist. But there would still be some fines flying around. Fines that would cut up a person’s lungs if enough got into them. And get into the Toolcat’s engine. Better to wait.

Neal saw Chuck come out of his trailer, dressed similarly to Neal. Neal waved and Chuck came over. “Thought I’d check the animals,” Chuck said. “Can you believe how dark it is?”

“I know,” Neal said. “It’s the ash cloud. Could be like this for days.”

The two began walking toward the tunnel. “What do you think will happen to the game in the area?” Chuck asked.

“Won’t be good,” Neal replied.

When Neal returned to the Lusby after taking care of the animals, Elizabeth was up, making breakfast for them.

That was the norm for two more days. Days in which the ash continued to fall lightly and accumulate, with snow sometimes, and without it, others. But on third day Chuck called him on the FRS radio. “Neal. Got a problem in Sullivan. One for Purity.”


“What is it?” Purity’s voice came over the radio immediately.

“Must have been right by the radio,” Elizabeth said, as Neal picked up the radio.

“Mrs. Marshal,” Chuck said. “Willi got me on the radio for her. She’s taken a turn for the worse. She’d like you to come in and do what you can for her.”

“Neal?” It was Purity.

“Yes, Purity?”

“I need to go to Sullivan. How?”

Neal hadn’t know Purity long. But it was long enough to know she’d probably walk if Neal didn’t come up with alternate transport.

“Okay, Purity. You get ready. I’ll get the Suburban ready.”

“But Neal!” protested Elizabeth. “Won’t that ruin the engine? Running it in the ash that way?”

“It would just about anything else, but I have a high efficiency cyclone pre-filter on the engine air intake as well as the HVAC system. We’ll wear masks and goggles, too. But we and the engine should be fine. The real problem may be the windshield. Won’t be able to use the wipers for fear of scratching it up. If the air system to clean the lights and the windshield don’t work, we could have a problem.”

“The ash is that abrasive?” Elizabeth asked. Neal nodded. “Won’t the air just be like a sandblaster then?”

Neal shook his head. “I hope not. I rigged it so there would be a cushion of air over the windshield and lights. If it works, the ash won’t even touch them. I’ll try it, and if it doesn’t work as planned, we’ll just have to stop occasionally and brush the ash of gently. I’ve got a long handled brush in the equipment box for snow. It’ll work for the ash, as long as I’m gentle.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, “I’ll help you get the Suburban uncovered.” The two put on their gear, this time including Tyvek coveralls, and went outside into the gentle ash fall. Despite the protective gear they were careful not to dump the accumulation on the canvas cover over the Suburban on either one of them, or get into the cloud that the dumping created.

Neal started the Suburban up after they had stowed the cover. He flipped the switch that opened the valve to send air to the outside of the windshield. The air compressor on the engine was a high capacity one. It was able to pour a large amount of medium pressure air over the windshield without drawing down the pressure tank.

With the Suburban at rest, the system worked just as designed. The proof in the pudding would be when they were on the move, at any speed faster than a crawl. If it worked at even moderate speeds, Neal would be happy.

It was obvious that both Elizabeth and Dwayne wanted to go in with Neal and Purity, but neither pressed the matter when Neal said he preferred they stay and take care of the place. Just in case.

Purity put her backpack in a rear seat and then climbed into the front passenger seat. Like Neal, Elizabeth, and Dwayne, she was wearing a Tyvek coverall, dust mask, and goggles. Neal got into the driver’s seat and they were off into the twilight, the ash still falling gently.

Purity and Neal didn’t talk much during the trip. Purity could see that Neal had to concentrate on his driving, so she kept her own council and debated on what best she could do to help Mrs. Marshal.

Neal tried various combinations of lights to see which worked best for the conditions. He wound up running some low mounted, high intensity lights. It seemed to illuminate the ash from below, without reflecting a lot of light back at him. When he hit a stretch where he was able to up his speed, Neal did so, to the point where the ash was pushing through the air curtain and impacting the windshield.

He backed off slightly and kept it at that speed most of the trip. It was about as fast as he could go, anyway, with the visibility the way it was. When they reached Sullivan Purity gave Neal the directions to Mrs. Marshals. Neal stopped the engine and turned out the lights on the Suburban, and went to the door of the house with Purity after she got her backpack of remedies.

Neal waited with Mrs. Marshal’s daughter when Purity went into the bedroom to check on her. Willi seemed to need something to do, so when she offered Neal a cup of herbal tea, he took her up on it.

When he took his mask off to take a sip of the tea a few minutes later he immediately felt and tasted the fine dust that was infiltrating the old house. He looked at Willi closely. Her eyes were red and bloodshot. Neal would have bet money she’d been rubbing them. Not a good thing to do with abrasive ash in the air.

Purity came out of Mrs. Marshal’s bedroom half an hour later. Neal was impressed with her professional demeanor when she explained that Willi’s mother’s single remaining lung just weren’t up to coping with the dust, even the small amounts that couldn’t be kept out of the house. “She has perhaps three days, I believe.”

Purity handed Jill a small, brown glass bottle. “When she is hurting, give her as much of this as wants, when she wants it. Too much will kill her quickly, but a little will dull the pain. I told her the same thing. I wish I could do more. There are some things herbs just can’t fix. I’m not even sure modern medicine could help her much, given this ash.”

Willi started to cry, but didn’t break down. She thanked Purity and showed her and Neal to the door.

Purity was just as quiet on the way back to the compound as she’d been coming down. When Neal parked the Suburban Purity looked over at him and said, “Thank you, Neal. I thought it would be a lost cause, and it was. But I needed to try.”

“I understand, Purity.”

She got out of the Suburban, and Dwayne was there to meet her. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and took her back to the cave to clean up.

Elizabeth helped a quiet Neal cover the Suburban up again. “Are you all right? How did the Suburban do?”

“Flying colors. Flying colors,” Neal said, the second time he said the words fading away. “Mrs. Marshal isn’t going to make it. There are a lot of people out there that won’t. This crisis is just getting started. The ash fall is just the start. What stays in the atmosphere is going to be worse, long term.”

“Will we be okay here?” Elizabeth asked as she dusted Neal off at the Lusby.

He turned around and did the same for her, before they went inside. “I think so. We have basics for years, even for a group this size. It all comes down to how much light actually filters down. The greenhouse gives us a leg up, but the plants still need light. We could use grow lights. If we had them, and a way to power them up.”

“The PV’s won’t do it?” Elizabeth asked.

“Not even close. And they are going to lose a significant amount of efficiency with the constant low light. We may have to run the generator in the cave some, and the generators in the trailers and motorhomes that have them.”

“I see.”

“Only time will tell,” Neal said.

Time did tell. For nineteen weeks the sky rained fine ash from dark clouds. Then the ash was finer and finer, the sky lighter and lighter, until the sun shone through at approximately eighty percent of normal, based on how much electricity the PV panels were producing.

It was the middle of June and the last of the snow was just melting away. The plants in the greenhouse began to perk up with the increased light. Neal thought they would get a crop out of them, though it would be meager. The conventional garden would be planted the following day, with hopes that a decent crop would be produced, even assuming almost no fall and a very early winter.

No one had left the property in that time, nor had anyone come to it. Chuck’s counterpart in Sullivan went off the air suddenly and they had no word from the town. He did talk to other survivors, mostly in the southeast of the country.

There had been no ash fall there, though the weather was similar to northern Canada before the war. Neal finally decided to go see who else might have survived locally, and how they were doing if they had. They went prepared as Neal had in the early days after the war. Well armed and ready for trouble.

They found no trouble, only a tiny handful of survivors sticking it out where they were. A few of the local people had gone east to escape the ash, but all indications were the extended winter had done them in.

Those that had survived the war and its aftermath, and prospered, were the ones that stayed and survived the initial months of the new catastrophe. Rosemont, the farmer that Neal dealt with for cattle, feed, and bio-diesel was one of those. So was Harry, the handyman. And George, with his trucks. They and their families were part of a tiny handful in and around Sullivan that Neal found on his initial trip.

All were making it, but it was tough. There was talk of abandoning the area and going to Georgia, where a large enclave of evacuees from the volcano stricken area had taken up residence. None really wanted to do that, with the investment they had in their own places. Especially Neal. From the radio conversations Chuck had with the enclave, they were already to the point of turning people away. All decided to stay and cooperate with one another, to see that everyone’s basic needs were met.

It was twenty-five years before the weather began to moderate, and people began to come back to the area. The Grant, Magnew, Rosemont, Hansen, and Cunningham families were all still well represented in the area. They had not only survived the over the years, but had prospered. Sullivan became the jumping off point for people re-populating the abandoned areas, willing and able to provide provisions for individuals or groups headed into the badlands.

Copyright 2007
Jerry D Young