It was nearing nine o'clock on a cool Friday evening in May. The scene was a remote highway interchange in the far north of the American Midwest. At any other time in history, it may have been a night to reflect on the beauties of creation. But in the midst of the greatest destruction the world had ever known, this was no place for such grand thoughts.

 

Irene Strait looked across the campfire at the older man. She had feelings of pity for him, but they were mixed with feelings of disillusionment that bordered on revulsion. For years she had respected him--maybe even idolised him. She had often wished that her own husband could be more like him. Even now Vernon Billings showed outstanding strength and determination. His obsession with reaching Montana continued to drive him on, even though it was looking more and more like he would eventually die from the effects of his foolhardy decision.

 

It would not be fair to call Vernon Billings a con man, for if he was, he had conned himself as well. He had offered to sleep out on the ground that first night, outside of Eau Claire, Minnesota, so that Raymie and the women could sleep more comfortably inside the car. Only when it had started to rain and he had become drenched, had he sought refuge with them inside the vehicle. Fallout from the bombing in Minneapolis was already on the ground, and more came down with the rain.

 

Vernon slept out again on Thursday night, just inside the North Dakota state border, on Highway 94. All of this exposure had made his prognosis much worse than that of most of the other pilgrims camped inside the cloverleaf on the intersection between Highway 94, going west, and Highway 85, going north to Regina, Canada.

 

But Irene was not thinking about what had motivated Vernon to camp out on the first two nights, whether it was heroism or stupidity. What she was thinking about was his behaviour that same day.

 

Food and water were scarce and expensive; but gasoline was the biggest concern for millions of travellers on the nation's highways. Tankers were no longer operating, so stations that sold at normal prices had quickly exhausted their stocks. Traffic was bumper to bumper in places, and often stop and go, as cars sought ways around damaged sections of the highway and around abandoned cars. This slowed progress and increased fuel consumption as well.

 

By Friday morning, any stations that still had fuel could name their own price. Checks and credit cards were useless, and it was not possible to get funds from the banks. The Prospect Heights pilgrims had less than $100 left when they had pulled into a station just before noon, advertising gas for $1,000 a tank. The situation was desperate.

 

Vernon Billings stopped the big Lincoln Town Car next to the pumps and leaned his head on the steering wheel for a moment while he prayed. He then lifted his head, leaned over Elaine to pull a cloth bag from the glove box, and turned to Irene in the back seat. "Irene, can you put the nozzle in the tank and start pumping when the attendant turns it on?" Irene caught a look of horror on Elaine's face.

 

"No, Vern. Don't...." Elaine began.

 

"I'll leave the motor running to save time," Vernon said, ignoring Elaine as he headed for the gas station store. He stayed inside while Irene filled up. When she had replaced the gas hose, Vernon ran out, hopped into the driver's seat and squealed the tyres as he tore out of the driveway.

 

No one said anything, but they all knew that he had used the gun in the cloth bag to get the gas.

 

"It's not like I robbed it," he said, as Elaine glared at him from the passenger seat. "I left him all the money we had. He was the one doing the robbing. It was self-defence."

 

Nothing more was said that whole day, although Irene and Raymie exchanged looks of surprise and bewilderment at the time. Raymie would certainly want an explanation as soon as they were on their own; and Irene had none.

 

That tankful of gas was nearing an end when they had spotted this camp of pilgrims who were also in search of the Messiah in Montana. The campfire caught Vernon's eye first. No one in the Lincoln had thought to bring matches, and it had turned suddenly cold. Four other cars were stopped by the fire, where people were exchanging stories about what they expected to find in Montana.

 

They all were showing signs of radiation sickness. Some, like Vernon, were losing hair already, and developing sores where their bodies could no longer fight infection. But they all insisted that their problems would be solved when they reached Montana and saw their Saviour.

 

As Irene looked at Vernon, she thought back to something Elaine had confided to her after Raymie had fallen asleep, during their second night together in the car:

 

"It's playing on my conscience," she had said. "You know that voice we talked about back in Illinois? The one that said 'come'? It was just a crow outside the house. I don't know if I did the right thing or not in backing Vernon up. You could describe it as sounding like 'come' as much as you could describe it as sounding like 'caw'. So when Vern said he heard Jesus say 'come', I agreed with him. It didn't take much imagination to hear it as 'come'."

 

Irene could not say that Elaine was entirely wrong about the "sign" from God, nor could she be entirely certain that Vernon had been wrong in reacting to the gas station owner's extortionate pricing. But it was all part of a growing disillusionment, that was starting to make her see a lot of things in a new light.

 

At the cloverleaf pilgrim camp, sick, weary, and dirty pilgrims were lifting themselves from makeshift beds by the fire to congregate around a late model pick-up that had driven up close to the circle. The driver had hopped up on the back to announce that he had an almost full 44-gallon drum of gasoline to sell. They weren't far from the Montana state border now, and that much gas might be enough to get someone to their destination.

 

Traffic was lighter going west, since most people, like the pick-up owner, were going north. The man with the gas had pumped more than he needed to reach Canada, and now he was going to sell the excess to make some easy money.

 

Other cars were stopped at the same cloverleaf... cars heading north on highway 85. People had come from as far south as Denver to get out of the country. People from other camps at the intersection had been alerted, and they too straggled over to join in the auction.

 

But few of those present had enough cash left to make a serious bid. Only three competitors were left when the price reached $1,000. They included Tom and Betty White--an elderly couple with two small grandchildren.

 

Irene had spoken with Tom and Betty earlier that evening. The children were orphans now. Betty had been baby-sitting them while their parents attended a function in a part of St. Paul that had sustained a direct hit.

 

The couple heard about the Montana Messiah from a neighbour, and they had joined the exodus. Tom had withdrawn funds for a vacation the day before the attack, so he had more cash left than others at the auction. He had, through poor planning, run out of gas just a hundred yards away from the cloverleaf. Both he and Betty were too frail to walk, and the chances of getting a ride to a gas station and back were slim in the present climate. Even if he did find a station with any gas left, there was a good chance that it would be sold out or charging more than he had by the time he could return with his car.

 

After re-checking his bankroll, the thin, grey-haired man called out, "Twelve hundred!" The other two bidders both indicated that they were out of the competition. The man on the pick-up motioned for Tom to bring his money over. Betty held her fists together in front of her chest and made a little jumping motion to express her happiness.

 

But just then, Vernon Billings walked over to the truck. He held his big left hand up for the auctioneer to look at, and he spoke quietly to him. They shook hands, and the old couple were told to put their money away. They had been outbid.

 

Tom and Betty walked off in tears, and sat down beside the children, who were sleeping next to Irene. "Please, take the children!" Betty begged, between sobs. "We'll give you all that we have if you'll just take the children."

 

Vernon was limping toward Irene, and he overheard the conversation. He shook his head "No", indicating with his hands that they did not have room. He signalled for Irene to leave the woman and come over to him.

 

"Praise the Lord!" he whispered, conspiratorially, when she walked up to him. "He accepted my Rolex. Irene, can you bring the car over to the pick-up, so he can fill the tank?"

 

"We can squeeze the children in," pleaded Irene. "Raymie and I can hold them in the back."

 

"And where would we put the boxes? or the water bottles?" The Billingses had loaded both the trunk and back seat up with food, clothes, and water before picking up Irene in Prospect Heights. "I can't allow that," said Vernon.

 

"But it's just food and clothes!" exclaimed Irene. "We're talking about two children here."

 

"Sister, God knows what he's doing. Just thank him for what he has done for us so far. He'll make a way for them too eventually... if it's his will. Trust God, sister. He's brought us this far."

 

Irene walked slowly over to the car. "Trust God?" she asked herself. They had trusted God that they would be taken in the rapture before all of this happened; that they would be immune to radiation; that Jesus had told them to go to Montana. And now she was supposed to trust God that two innocent children would be cared for without any sacrifice on Vernon Billings' part... or, for that matter, on her part.

 

Was it really God that she was being asked to trust? Or had Vernon Billings become her replacement for God? She had left her daughter, participated in an armed hold-up, and now beaten an elderly couple and two young children out of their chance for survival, just because Vernon Billings said that it was God's will.

 

Irene started the car and drove it up close to the pick-up. As the man with the 44-gallon drum started to siphon the gas into Vernon's car, she was overwhelmed with a desperate need for Rayford to be there and to help her with a hard decision. All her life she had known God through other people. But now she needed to make one of the most important decisions of her life, and she was being forced to do it without back-up from anyone. She tried to pray, but she lacked the certainty that Vernon Billings' confidence had always given to her in the past.

 

Irene waited patiently in the driver's seat while the auctioneer above her tipped his drum at an angle, and played with the hose to drain the last of it into her tank. By the time he had finished, she had made her mind up. She signalled for Pastor Billings to come over.

 

"Vernon," she began, calling the man by his first name for the first time. "I want you to bring that old couple over here to the car. I want to talk to them." There was a conviction in her voice that shocked Irene as much as it shocked Vernon Billings.

 

"It's best not to say anything..." her pastor began.

 

"I didn't ask your opinion. I said to bring them here!" she said, through clenched teeth. "Wake Raymie and bring him too." Vernon turned in shock and obeyed her. She was strangely thrilled by her own ability to make such a big decision, and to do it in the face of the man who had made so many of her decisions for her in the past. It was scary, but it was exhilarating too.

 

When Vernon returned, his wife was with him.

 

"Get in the car, Raymie," Irene said. Raymie climbed in the back, while the others gathered around the window on the driver's side. She spoke up enough so that they could all hear, but not loud enough for any other pilgrims to hear.

 

"There has been a change of plans. We're heading north," she said. "We're not going to Montana. If you want a lift to Canada, you can join us."

 

"No, don't say that, Sister Strait," argued Pastor Billings as he moved closer to the car. "We're almost there. We can take the children if you like..."

 

Just then he saw the barrel of his own pistol poking at him through the window.

 

"Sister Strait! What are you doing? Put that down!"

 

BANG! A shot rang out. It whizzed over Vernon's head. Other campers turned and looked, but assumed that the car had backfired.

 

"I'm serious, Vernon!" Irene said. "I've got a family back in Illinois, and I mean to find them. America has been destroyed, for whatever reason, I don't know. But I can't change things just through wishful thinking.

 

"Now, I'll ask just one more time: Who wants to come to Canada with me?" Tom and Betty looked timidly at each other. Their expressions suggested that their faith in the Montana myth had been teetering already. They looked back in Irene's direction and timidly raised their hands.

 

"Get the kids," Irene said. "It'll be crowded, but we'll do our best. What about you, Vernon? You can come with us if you like."

 

Vernon Billings was in deep pain--both physically and spiritually. Sweat formed on his brow as another wave of nausea swept over him. He had travelled too far down the road. His religious pride would not allow him to change directions now. Right or wrong, he was going to die for his cause. He shook his head, and then turned away to dry retch.

 

Irene eyed Elaine. "And you?"

 

"My place is with Vern," she said, as she moved closer to her fevered husband and reached out to comfort him.

 

"I understand," Irene said, allowing herself to soften just for a moment. "I love you... both."

 

The pastor's wife returned Irene's expression of love, and then Tom White got clearance from Irene before walking over to Vernon and Elaine. He gave them the keys to his car and his roll of money while Betty loaded the kids into the car.

 

"My car's up there just past the overpass," Tom said, pointing to a light green Ford. "It's totally empty, but maybe you can get out of here with this." He indicated the wad of money.

 

Then Tom returned to Irene and joined Raymie and the older child in the back seat. Betty held the baby in the front with Irene. There were two boxes in the back too, making it quite crowded.

 

Irene put the car into drive, waved silently to her former pastor and his wife, and then pulled out onto the highway.

 

"Mom, it's too crowded back here," Raymie complained.

 

Irene responded slowly and deliberately as she drove, giving each word time to sink in: "I'm only going to say it once, Raymie. If you or anyone else in this car doesn't like the conditions, you just ask and I'll let you out. I'm sorry, Raymie, that I haven't taught you to be more disciplined before now. But these are dangerous times, and we all need to grow up and face reality real fast. It's time to stop complaining and to start thanking God that we are still alive, and that we have the means to get away from here. Do you understand me?"

 

"Yes, Mom," said Raymie. Tom and Betty also whispered acceptance of the conditions.

 

They drove on in silence. And as they drove, more than one of the car's occupants was praying in a way that he or she had never prayed before.