There was dead silence around the table when Jenny finished her story. Then Doug hesitantly said, "I don't blame you for feeling that way. If that's all it was--a form of self-defense. But I've seen when it goes too far--way too far. Completely out-of-control too far. Let me tell you what happened after I missed being barbequed. I stayed with my rescuers for two weeks after the second earthquake. Their leader was a man named Web Hardesty. He was the guy who cut my ropes off when they saved me. Wade Ewell Browning Hardesty the Third. They called him Web. He was maybe in his mid-forties, with a beard like Boone's. Well, maybe it was trimmed shorter. Like a big goatee, sort of. And his hair was darker, and he wasn't quite as tall as Boone, but otherwise they could have been related. Maybe brothers even.
"Hardesty had a great setup. His family owns about a hundred acres on a side creek off the Wolf River. Both sides of the creek, all the way down to the Wolf. He's rich, seriously loaded, but I never heard him mention where he made his money. It was family money, I think. I got the impression that this wasn't his only place. Hardesty had his own little band of survivalists staying with him after the earthquakes. There was even a little barracks house with ten bunk beds, just ready to go. Generators and everything. Like your friend's hunting retreat in Mississippi, but on a bigger budget, a way bigger budget. He had a nice house there too, where his close friends and their families were living. Hardesty was probably just waiting for the shit to hit the fan. His friends and him were ready for anything, and fully equipped. Picture a whole squad of Rangers or SEALs. Maybe a little past their prime, but still hard-asses, and armed to the teeth."
Jenny shrugged. "So, what's wrong with that? That sounds like a good place to me."
"Nothing, not a thing. But these guys were twisted. I went out with them on 'rescue missions.' It sounds plausible. They were going out to rescue their friends who were stuck in dangerous places when the shit hit the fan. They had boats, jeeps, dirt bikes--I heard they even had a Cessna, but I didn't see it while I was with them."
"I wish a group like that had come and rescued my family," said Jenny.
"I'm sure you do. But that wasn't the whole picture. The 'rescue missions' turned into something else. Those good old boys, they had night vision scopes, infrared lasers, silencers--everything. They were very intense, very high strung. To listen to them, it sounded like they all knew somebody who had been raped or murdered by blacks, and you know that's just not possible. But maybe they did see some pretty terrible things."
"Like you, about to be eaten by cannibals," Jenny noted dryly.
"Yeah, that's true. That's one example. But I think those guys were just waiting for something like the earthquakes to happen. Not just for earthquakes--they were ready for anything. For the end of the world. Like they were expecting it all along. And if you ask me, they were enjoying it. It was almost like a game for them. They wore camouflage uniforms, they put on face paint, the whole nine yards. When they had that green and black grease paint on their faces, you couldn't tell what color they were underneath. Oh, they really got into it. They called black people niggers, of course, but they also called them zombies and goblins. Hardesty's group could just roam around at night and kill people like it was a video game, all in the green light of starlight scopes. I think the 'rescue mission' part was just an excuse.
"At night, refugees would build little campfires for warmth and for cooking, so they were easy for Hardesty to find. You could see them from literally a mile away, and then just stalk in toward them, using night vision. If they were white people, sometimes Hardesty helped them, gave them some food and water, or gave them directions and advice on where to go. Sometimes Hardesty just went on around them and left them alone. But if they were black...most of the time, they were shot. From a hundred yards out, with a night scope and a silencer, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. They said that they were taking out the trash, cleaning up Tennessee while they had the opportunity. They called it 'coon hunting,' they said it was 'open season on niggers.' They said they were culling the herd and flushing out the gene pool. After shooting some blacks they'd say, 'NHI--no humans involved.' I think they enjoyed it, from what I saw.
"And not just blacks. One night on a 'rescue mission,' we found a camp that they thought was white people, but when we got up close enough to come into their firelight, we could tell they were Mexicans. Or maybe from somewhere else in Central America, I don't know. They were talking in Spanish. There were at least eight or ten men, from their teens to their fifties, and two or three women.
"That night there were seven of us out with Hardesty, counting me. We went out in two big aluminum hunting boats. They had special muffler boxes over the outboard motors to make them run so quiet that you almost couldn't hear them. From the front, when they were going slow, you couldn't hear them at all. The boats were painted green and brown camouflage, but they mostly used them at night when I was with them. The Wolf River was their secret highway at night. When we saw campfires, we'd beach the boats about a half mile away, and patrol in on foot.
"The Mexicans were camped in a field between four old cars. Like circling the wagons, you know? It looked like they were sleeping in their cars and under plastic sheet lean-to shelters, but when we approached, most of them were sitting in a circle around their fire, between the cars. It was a wretched, miserable night. Not really raining, but misting, almost drizzling.
"Hardesty could speak pretty good Spanish, I'd heard him, but that night he wouldn't. He could speak French and German too; he was very well educated. He could whip out quotes from famous people for almost every occasion. Lines of poetry too. Just pull them out to fit any situation, and not miss a beat. A real Renaissance man. Great sense of humor, at least with his group. A natural leader.
"So he kept ordering these Mexicans to speak English, speak English dammit, this is still America! He asked them why were they in America. He asked them if they had snuck over the border, or come in legally. 'Where were you born? Show me your green cards! Show me your visas!' They didn't have a clue what he was saying. He called them invaders and thieves and blood-sucking parasites. He said they didn't belong in Tennessee or any part of America, and to get the hell out of his country. He was livid, he was even angrier than when he was just killing blacks. He kept firing questions at them in English, but they couldn't answer him. Remember, this was last January, and that was months before the first North American Legion battalions were formed up and sent into Tennessee. So these were just poor dumb Mexican illegal aliens, not NAL troops or any-thing like that. That came later." Doug pronounced NAL so that it rhymed with pal.
"They were all huddled around their fire when we snuck up on them. We must have been a terrifying sight, all cammied up, with rifles. I had a rifle, too, by then--this rifle, in fact. Hardesty gave it to me himself. It came with this suppressor, just about all of his rifles had suppressors. He had a weapons room in his river house like a big-city SWAT team might have. This one is a semi-auto AR-15 carbine, but otherwise it's the same as a military M-4. I have a night scope for it, but its batteries died and I couldn't get any more. They're special batteries, impossible to find. You brought some in the dead traitor's pack, so I'll be back in business with night vision now. I just need to put the scope back on."
Jenny nodded, but didn't say anything.
"Since Hardesty rescued me, since he saved me from being cooked and eaten by a gang of blacks, he must have assumed that I'd be thrilled to join his little band of killers. I was another trigger puller in his private army, and obviously I'd be highly motivated, right? At first I was grateful, how could I not be? He had generators, diesel and gas tanks, freezers, meat, ice, beer...everything. All hidden in his own personal survivalist paradise. And I was grateful! They had saved my life, saved me from being killed and eaten by cannibals. So sure, I went out on 'rescue missions' with them. After all, we'd be saving more people like me from a horrible fate, right? I thought they were heroes, at first. I really did. For a while, I thought we were doing a good thing. It was like being in an unofficial National Guard unit, almost. An unofficial militia, kind of on the vigilante side. The Rescue Rangers. I would stay with them until I found the Army, or the Army found me. I suppose that's how I rationalized it.
"But they were enjoying it, especially killing blacks. They called black women 'breeders.' Hardesty said, 'For Pete's sake, don't let the breeders get away!' His friends laughed and said, 'We're finally breaking the cycle of poverty. We're the best welfare reformers in history.' And they meant it, too. After they shot them, they usually dragged their bodies into the river. 'Sending them down the river,' that's what they called it. 'Mail us a postcard from New Orleans,' they'd say. If they were too far from the river, they'd drag the bodies over their own campfire and burn them. Or they would just leave them where they fell. There were already so many bodies, who would ever notice a few more? Like you said, Jenny, there were no police anywhere.
"Most of the time they just snuck close enough to campfires to see if they were black people. Then they'd start sniping away, with their night scopes and infrared lasers and their sound suppressors. Fish in a barrel. But once we did actually rescue two white girls. They had been raped and beaten for days and days, so it wasn't entirely clear in my mind that what we were doing was just plain out-and-out murder. That night when we found the two white girls was a real rescue mission, no doubt about it. That night, we really were 'rescue rangers.' Hardesty was a perfect gentle-man toward those two, and he returned them to their families. One of those girl's brothers joined up with Hardesty's band right on the spot, after Web brought her home. That one mission made me question if what they were doing was more evil, or more virtuous. I was actually proud to be with Hardesty then.
"That, plus we shot plenty of looters, and we found some more evidence of cannibalism. Cooked, half-eaten evidence. Humans were on the menu at a lot of those campfires. In those cases I didn't mind shooting them so much, but murder is still murder. I knew that what Hardesty was doing was mostly wrong--but nothing was completely clear after those two earthquakes. Normal reality had definitely gone off-kilter after those quakes. Nothing was the same after the earthquakes, especially that first month or two when there were aftershocks all the time. There were no police, no military--and no laws. Web Hardesty's law was the only law for miles and miles around. I'll be the first to admit that I went off the deep end. Way off. My hands are not clean, far from it.
"So anyway, that night with the Mexicans, Hardesty thought they were white Americans until we got up real close. And I think those Mexicans thought that we were the real military, or the National Guard or something. At first they were smiling, like they thought we were there to help them or maybe give them some food. Until Hardesty started to rant and scream and shout questions at them in English. He switched from infrared to a visible red laser on his rifle, and he'd put that bright red dot on somebody and ask that person another question, in English. They were just numb with fear, petrified, crying and pleading in Spanish. When Hardesty got tired of it he opened fire, and so did the rest of his team. It was just a pure massacre. Very different than sniping at blacks from a hundred yards away.
"While their attention was focused on shooting everybody around the fire, and getting the ones who were running away or crawling under the cars, I went the other way. Why I didn't shoot Hardesty and his team, I don't know. I was behind them, I could have. Maybe because I owed them my life. But I went the other way, and they didn't find me. I don't know what they would have done if they had found me after I 'deserted' Hardesty's group, but lucky for me, they didn't. A week after that, Boone Vikersun found me."
When Doug finished, he looked down at the table. His folded hands were trembling.
"So, what's the point of that story?" Jenny asked. "That white people are just as bad as blacks? I can guarantee you that for every Web Hardesty, there were a hundred blacks that did worse, a lot worse. And at least being shot is quick, a lot quicker than being raped and tortured to death at the hands of savages! And then eaten! And you even admitted that you rescued some people, and found more looters and cannibals."
Then Doug was talking, but Jenny was not hearing his words. She was hearing her mother's last screams. Unbidden memories were once again taking her back to her hiding place in the cellar of her family's home in Germantown, and to later painfully evil memories from the long journey to Mannville. When her mind returned to the present she heard him say, "But those two white girls were the only time we rescued anybody, other than me. The rest of the time they were just shooting innocent people in cold blood."
Jenny snapped back, "How do you know they were innocent? You said some of them were looters and cannibals. And Web Hardesty's group rescued you, didn't they? If it wasn't for him, you'd have been roasted over a fire and eaten."
"I know, I know, and that's why I still have mixed feelings about them--but you can't ever excuse cold-blooded murder, no matter what. Or you're no better than the worst savages."
Carson had been a silent listener to this emotional exchange, occasionally glancing between them while examining the pages of the newly discovered notebook.
Jenny was about to tell Doug that she wished that Web Hardesty's group had not rescued him and thus prevented him from becoming a cannibal feast. Before she could utter these words, the line of Christmas lights that marked the passageway back to the cave entrance blinked out, and then came back on. Then it blinked twice, and stayed on as before.
Doug said, "Boone's here! That's the signal."
"What time is it?" Jenny asked.
"Almost one," replied Phil Carson.
"One a.m., or one p.m.?"
"P.m. It's Sunday afternoon."
(The above excerpts were just 50 of the 570 pages in the printed book.)