The young man in a hard hat sits on a bench, his eyes on a plumb bob hanging over a black dot painted on a plastic square taped to the sidewalk. In his right hand is a device you sometimes see fans carrying at football games – a small horn powered by compressed air.

He sits outside a store in downtown Paso Robles, its windows broken, its brick walls showing big cracks. There are red numbers and symbols spray-painted on the walls and red signs in English and Spanish forbidding entrance.

But there are men inside.

They’re shoring up the walls and ceiling so they can remove the last of the store’s furniture and merchandise.

Other men and women work inside and outside other stores nearby – shoring, moving out boxes of inventory, stacking bricks on pallets. The building where two women died when the walls and roof fell in is being torn down--too far gone for restoration. Known locally as the Acorn Building, it was once the symbol of Paso Robles’ historic past. Soon it will be only a memory, an image on fading postcards.

The street is noisy, but there’s not much talking. Too many masks to keep out dust. Too many ears cocked for the sound of the young man’s airhorn.

If it blows, it means he’s seen the plumb bob start to move. An aftershock is starting.

Everyone will flee the buildings –dropping 4x4’s, tools and boxes – running to the center of the wide street where no collapsing wall or caving cornice can catch them.

The fault which hammered El Paso del Robles on December 22 is still straining, still shuddering; and it may not be done with this city of 26,000 on the Central Coast of California.

The fault lies under a range of mountains to the west of the city – one of several ranges running parallel to the Pacific which make up the Coastal Range. Geologically speaking, the range is young – an adolescent compared to the Sierra Nevada which defines the state’s eastern border. Both, however, are volcanic. Huge calderas greet the westbound airliners from Chicago into L.A. Hereabouts, old volcanic plugs dot the landscape, most famously near San Luis Obispo where they march down Edna Valley and Los Osos Valley to end at the famous monolith in Morro Bay. The ground beneath is sulfurous – oozing thick, black oil in places. Nodding pumps are tucked away in unexpected places. Hot mineral water spas were among the early tourist attractions of San Luis Obispo County.

Today, the parking lot behind City Hall is one big pool. A sulfur spring, once blocked off with concrete, was freed by the San Simeon Quake of December 22. Steam and hot water blasted into the air, eating away the lot, running downhill through town to the Salinas River at over a thousand gallons a minute.

It’s down to 800 gallons now as the city engineers pump it through storm drains – but it’s so corrosive it could eat up the pipes being used to control it and the drains themselves. God only knows what it’s doing to the fish in the river and the wildlife along its banks. These cold winter nights and days, a low fog hangs over the river valley north clear to Camp Roberts. Paso Robles stinks of it – a nose-burning, eye-watering stench that even makes your Big Mac taste funny if you try to eat it outdoors.

But FEMA is here now; and during an inspection, Governor Schwarzennegger promised some state money though no one knows – not even God – where the Guv will find it. Still, despite $100-million in damage, the town is determined to resurrect itself, to be ready so it can handle the thousands of tourists who flock to the star-studded Mid-State Fair in August. Paso is wounded, they say, but it ain’t dead.

And the young man continues to sit staring at the plumb bob as Paso Robles struggles to recover.