The next few hours on the road passed in relative silence. Wally West sat staring out the window, watching the road go by. Ralph Dibny’s few attempts to make conversation were brushed off with one-word replies. Ollie Queen and Hal Jordan were silent, too; Ollie could feel Hal’s disapproving eyes on him.
Finally, Ollie spoke. “We need gas,” he said. “I’m pulling over here.” Ollie swung the car into a brightly lit filling station. He got out of the car to fill the tank. Wally left the car and went into the convenience store for something to eat. Ralph and Hal took the opportunity to speak to Ollie.
“Weren’t you a little hard on Wally, Ollie?” Ralph asked.
Ollie didn’t meet Ralph’s eyes. “Ahh, maybe,” he admitted. “But the kid’s supposed to be a hero — a Leaguer! He ought to be able to take it.”
“Wally’s a different case, Ollie,” Hal pointed out. “Can’t you see he’s been on pins and needles since stepping into Barry’s shoes? Sure, he’s a hero; he’s been one longer than some of the current League. And yet, he can’t help feeling like a kid wearing his dad’s suit.”
“Especially around the older Leaguers,” Ralph added. “And most especially around Bruce, Arthur… and you.”
“Huh?” Ollie goggled. “Why us? Why me?”
“Because he was a Teen Titan,” Ralph explained. “He was on the same team with the kids you guys were training how to be heroes. So how can you ever see him as a peer? That’s what he thinks.”
“Aw, geez,” Ollie said. “You’re right. I never thought of that. Key rice, he must feel like I did when I first joined the League! There I was, some upstart with a bow and arrow, rubbing shoulders with Superman and Batman… and you, Hal.”
Hal chuckled. “I think Wally could use a friendly word, don’t you?”
Ollie smiled at his old friend. “I hope I’m as wise as you are when I’m your age,” he joked.
“You were,” Hal joked back.
Wally came out of the convenience store, carrying a jumbo-size bag of corn chips and a Big Slurp soda. Hal nudged Ralph in the ribs.
“Say, all of a sudden, I feel like a Milky Way bar. How about you, Ralph?”
“Yeah, Milky Way sounds good. I wonder if they sell them frozen?”
“We could ask.”
The two friends walked off toward the convenience store. Wally walked right by Ollie, reaching for the car door. Ollie put out a hand and stopped him.
“Wally… can I talk to you for a sec?” he asked, humbly.
“What about?” Wally asked, not looking at the archer.
“Look, what I said back there… I was outta line,” Ollie said, uneasily. “I mean, shouting at you like that — I had no right; you were trying to help. Hell, you did help. Look, this isn’t easy for me, but I’m trying to say I’m sorry.”
Wally chuckled mirthlessly. “Thanks, Ollie. I appreciate it. I guess what really stung about your words was that I believe them. They’ve been in my head for a while now.”
“Hell, kid, you’ve proved yourself twenty times over!” Ollie said, and meant it. “Don’t let a blustery old man with a beard shake your confidence in yourself!”
Wally laughed at that. “Ollie, can I ask you a question?”
“After Uncle Barry… died,” Wally said, almost choking on the word, “I went through his personal effects. I found an old birthday card.”
“Birthday card?” Ollie asked.
“Uh-huh. It was signed ‘To Patch: Welcome to the Over-Thirty Club! All the Best, Ollie.'”
“Aw, geez! He kept that?” Ollie said. “Well, that’s like him. Sentimental.”
“What did you mean, Patch?”
“It’s just a nickname I called him sometimes, that’s all.”
“But what’s it mean?”
“I got it from some novel I read. I forget what it was called,” Ollie said. “Patch was what they called the go-to guy, the one they always counted on in a pinch.”
“And that was Uncle Barry.”
“Oh, yeah. He always pulled the answer out in a clinch, you know? He was the one who figured out that Felix Faust’s ice-demons never came out in the rain, or that Kanjar Ro’s cosmic scatter-gun couldn’t penetrate copper. He had that cool, analytical mind, never lost it in a crisis, always found the answer. I admired that.”
“Patch. That’s so cool,” Wally said, staring off into the sky. “He was something special, Uncle Barry was.”
“Damn straight, kid,” Ollie said. “And that makes you something special, too. He taught you everything you know, right? The apple doesn’t fall far.” Ollie paused. “I guess it could help you find that out for yourself, if old war horses like me were a little more patient with you.”
Wally grinned and looked at Ollie. “I’d appreciate that.”
Ollie punched him in the arm. “Come on, let’s not get all misty. I know this is the ’80s, but I’m not into that hugging thing.”
The four vacationing heroes continued their drive. They had decided to alternate driving and keep going through the night, to make better time on the road. The rosy fingers of dawn were just beginning to intrude on the deep midnight blue of the predawn sky as the car rolled through the American heartland. Farms lined the road as far as the eye could see. Hal and Ollie were in the backseat now, fast asleep; Ollie was snoring loudly. Ralph was driving, with Wally in the passenger seat, fidgeting restlessly.
“I still don’t know why we couldn’t have flown,” Wally said. “Or heck, even used the JLA teleporter!”
Ralph chuckled. “You’ve got a lot to learn about vacations, Wally,” Ralph said. “Getting there is half the fun! I mean, look around you! Look at this beautiful scenery! You couldn’t see stuff like this from an airplane! This is America, Wally!”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Wally said, staring out the window. “It is kinda nice. I mean, look at that old barn, with the Mail Pouch Tobacco ad painted on the side! That must have been there for fifty years!”
“And those horses, grazing over there. Is there any more majestic creature than the horse?”
“And those mountains off in the horizon, with the trees growing on one side. That is beautiful, Ralph!”
“And look over there — a giant fire monster destroying a barn! Now there’s something you don’t see every–”
Hal and Ollie were startled awake by the squeal of brakes and the sudden lurch of the car stopping.
“Huh! Wha–? Whatizzit? I’m up! I’m up! What?” Ollie stammered excitedly.
“Ralph, what’s going on?” Hal, the trained test pilot, said a bit more articulately.
“Nothing much,” Ralph sighed. “Just something else that seems to happen every vacation.”
“Oh, the menace?” Hal said, irritably. “What is it this time? Aliens? Creatures from the center of the Earth?” Before Ralph could answer, Hal caught sight of the flames from the corner of his eye. He turned his head to see the hundred-foot humanoid creature, apparently made out of fire, smashing its fists down on a wooden barn, setting the structure ablaze.
“Now, that’s a new one,” Hal said, impressed.
The fire-creature slammed its flaming fists down on the barn again and again. It was blazing as brightly as the creature itself. In the eerie light thrown by its flames, a middle-aged man stood sternly watching. A gray-haired woman clung to the man, burying her sobbing face in his chest.
“Oh, Tom… everything we’ve worked for…” she cried.
“I know, Sarah,” Tom said, patting her shoulder. “I know.”
The fire-monster raised its fist again, preparing to smash it down on the barn. Suddenly, a white blossom erupted between the dark patches that were the creature’s eyes, and a loud hissing sound may have been a cry of pain. Tom and Sarah looked in the direction of the road, and suddenly hope lit in their eyes.
“Well, I didn’t think one fire-extinguisher arrow would take out a flaming Godzilla,” Green Arrow said. “What have you guys got?”
“I can’t use my ring on it directly,” Green Lantern said, hovering in the sky. “Too much yellow in the flames. But I can affect its surroundings, like the air.” In a flash of emerald light, a giant pair of green fireplace-bellows appeared in the predawn sky over the barn. The bellows began to pump furiously, moving vast quantities of air at the fire-monster at hurricane force. The beast flickered like a candle-flame near an open window, clearly fighting to maintain its form.
“Need a hand, G.L.?” the Flash asked, racing around the barn at supersonic speed. He ran behind the fire-monster, racing back and forth at a furious pace. The wind of his passing buffeted the creature from the opposite direction from Green Lantern’s bellows; the two winds at once snuffed the creature out like a birthday candle.
“Don’t forget the barn, G.L.!” Elongated Man called out, stretching his neck up to get his head higher.
“On it, Ralph!” Green Lantern cried. His power ring created an airless dome over the flaming barn; in a few minutes the flames burned themselves out.
“Oh, thank you!” Tom said to Green Arrow as the archer approached. “Thank you so much! I-I can’t tell you what this means to us! You–”
“All in a day’s work, friend,” Green Arrow said. “Tell me, are big hulking fire-monsters the norm around here?”
“Didn’t used to be,” Sarah spat. “But since Reverend Green moved in–!”
“Sarah!” Tom cried.
“Reverend Green?” Green Arrow asked. “Care to elaborate on that?”
Tom hesitated, then let out a sigh. “Why not?” he said. “Come on inside, have some coffee. I’ll tell you the whole story.”
Minutes later, the four heroes were sitting around the farm couple’s kitchen table. Sarah had poured coffee, which the Flash had rejected in favor of a glass of milk. Tom took a sip of the steaming liquid, then began his narrative.
“This is a farm community,” Tom said. “Been one as long as anyone can remember. We work the land. It’s how we live. We’ve always been God-fearing people, too. But in the last few years, seems like that hasn’t been enough. Times have been hard for the farmers, and no mistake.” Green Arrow nodded. “Well, a few months back, Reverend Eleazar Green came to town. Started preaching a new kind of religion — the Church of Nature, he called it. Said that by worshiping Nature itself, with a capital N on it, we could improve our lot. Lot of us scoffed at first, but like I said, times was hard. So we tried it. And danged if it didn’t work! Crops grew overnight, tomatoes the size of bowling balls, ears of corn you could paddle downriver on! My hand to God I’m telling the truth!”
“So what went wrong?” Green Arrow asked.
Sarah snorted. “Reverend Green demanded his cut,” she said.
“That’s right,” Tom agreed. “Said the Church of Nature demanded a tithe, like any other church. Started askin’ for fifty percent of the profits from all our farms.”
“Fifty percent!” Elongated Man goggled. “That’s usury!”
“It is that,” Tom agreed. “But what could we do? Them as didn’t pay, their farms shriveled up. Nothin’ but despair would grow on ’em.”
“Did anyone speak out?” Green Lantern asked. “Try to form a resistance to Reverend Green?”
“Yep,” Tom nodded. “Me. You saw the result.”
“The fire monster?” Flash asked. “Reverend Green has that much power?”
“Why not?” Tom shrugged. “I saw him make pumpkins the size of nursin’ sows grow in land that’d seen drought all summer. After that, a giant of fire ain’t so unbelievable.”
“Gentlemen,” Green Arrow said, “I think we need to pay a call on Reverend Green.”