When the ash started falling Sunday morning, Bob Byrum looked out over his gray riverfront yard and just shrugged.
"Got enough trouble for one man, too much for two," said Byrum, a 72-year-old widower who figures he has seen just about all there is to see in his life along the Toutle River.
The ash fell in mud drops, but that was nothing new. Byrum was standing in two feet of mud that raging volcano, Mount St. Helens, had sent down the Toutle a week earlier. A half inch of muddy ash falling from the mountain's second eruption Sunday was like snow flurries after a blizzard.
"Don't know what that mountain can do to us next," Byrum said. "Nothin' good, I guess."
Off to the right, his corrugated metal fishing hut was tipped at a 45-degree angle over the river bank into the muddy waters. But he didn't need the fishing hut now, anyway. All the fish, the salmon, the steelhead, and the trout, are dead.
From high ground a week ago, he watched hundreds of the fish go by in water heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the volcano. "First they was jumpin', hundreds at a time, like they was goin' for flies. Then they was all floatin' down the river on their backs."
Now, Byrum's mailbox was standing in the mud, the letter opening inches above the muck, covered with a light coating of ash. Up river, at Spirit Lake, the danger posed by a 17-mile-wide volcano-created dam holding back another wall of water appeared to have subsided. But the people here were still fearful.
"I guess it will just wipe us out here the next time," Byrum said. "But I don't rightly know what more it could do. Just sorta wish it would happen."
Next door, on still lower ground, the Sam Hornstras had left for good. The Hornstras' 18 acres of filbert and walnut trees were dying under six feet of mud, the newly dropped ash leaving them looking more like a dust-covered rhododendron garden instead.
Elsewhere in Cowlitz County, hardest hit by the ash fall from Sunday's second eruption, people were getting spooked. Kelso, the county seat, looked like a dying Depression-era dust bowl town, covered by about a half inch of ash.
Nancy Gilmore, who answers the main phone at the county sheriff's office in Kelso, said people are being "really crazy" since the ash started falling. "They are complaining about speeders and people who are washing the ash off their cars and breaking the water rationing rules. People are just kind of freaky. They've been cooped up too long."
Speeders were a problem on nearby Interstate 5, the main north-south freeway in western Washington. Semis roared past long, creeping lines of Memorial Day drivers, the trucks kicking up blocks-long clouds of white ash, cutting visibility down to the end of a driver's hood.
The state police were advising long-wekend vacationers to make the weekend even longer, staying put for another day or two. But cars and campers were lined up bumper to bumper anyway.
At the far eastern end of Cowlitz County, in the tiny hamlet of Cougar, at the southern base of the mountain, some of the 200 residents who fled their homes in the ash storm have returned.
The Cougar Store, owned by Dot and Elvin Elmire, was open today for business. The Elmires stayed behind on both Sundays when the mountain spewed ash over them.
On the May 18 morning of the mountain's first, cataclysmic eruption, they stood in the brilliant sunshine and watched, awestruck, as the volcano sent a column of grey-white ash into the sky.
But when Cougar was evacuated several hours later, they stayed behind, feeling the mountain would do them no harm.
"Being as close to the mountain, the force of it seems to carry it over us," Dot Elmire said. "I know they think we're idiots, but it always seems to be worse somewhere else."
Mount St. Helen's rumbling subsided today, but a heavy cloud cover prevented scientists from making aerial surveys to assess the damage caused by Sunday's eruption.
The poor visibility and heavy accumulations of ash also thwarted efforts to search for the estimated 76 persons still missing from the May 18 eruption, which left 23 persons known dead.
Several small earthquakes disturbed the otherwise quiet Mount St. Helens, suggesting that molten rock may be moving up through the volcano again, scientists said. It was molten rock reaching the top of the mountain that produced the massive explosion May 18.
In Seattle today, the King County medical examiner said autopsies on six bodies found at least 10 miles from the mountain show that, despite the high heat from the blast, they did not die of burns but suffocated on ash and gas.
The examiner, Dr. John Eisele, said the victims might have either breathed the choking dust or been smothered under it.
"A few breaths would be sufficient to explain the findings," he said. "We can't tell if the victims were conscious or how long they survived." CAPTION: Picture, Comment scrawled on car in Keoso, Wash., after Sunday's eruption tells it all.; Copyright (c) San Jose Mercury