It was late afternoon. All day the men who took orders from Helen Foraker had held the fire to the limits set down by the great blast. It burned briskly, hotly, but it was within their grasp and could not get away. The wind blew steadily and there was still danger in letting up until above the shouts and the snap of burning wood, the moan of trees that had been saved, came a heavy shaking boom of thunder. Through the thick smoke scattering rain drops fell, sending up little puffs of dust in the fire line. The wind dropped, the thin shower abated, stopped, and then with a fresh gust it came in a hissing, drenching torrent with lightning gashing the murk and thunder ripping open new clouds heavy with moisture. In ten minutes the ruts of the road ran water.
Drenched, her face streaked with grime, eyes smarting, weak from effort and strain, the girl entered her kitchen. Aunty May met her in the doorway.
"You're a sight!" she cried. "But this rain'll fix it, an' I'm glad you're here!" Helen took off her hat wearily and made no response. "He's in there yet," gesturing toward the front room.
"That old devil!" eyes snapping. "I heard what he had to say this mornin'. He's stayed here all day. All durin' the fire he had Injun kids from th' mill running back an' forth to tell him about it, givin' 'em his dirty dollars!"
Helen's face showed amazement through its weariness.
"I told 'em both to go, but he won't. He made that there Rowe go out and set in th' car in th' rain. He's mad at him, called him awful names! I tried to make him go, too, but he just said he'd go when you come. You'd better send him away, Helen; he makes me uneasy!"
The girl opened the door and looked into the other room. It was dark, like the last of evening twilight. Lightning played through the damp shadows and the roar of rain was terrific. Luke Taylor was in the chair she had drawn out for him that morning. He seemed more shrunken, more feeble as he sat far down on his spine, knees bent sharply. He was not aware that she was there until she stood beside him; then his hands which had been tapping the chair arms stopped upraised. The girl did not speak and Luke rose slowly, peering close into her face as a protracted flicker of lightning showed it in sharp relief.
"That old she-devil tried to drive me out," he said. "Maybe I've got something like that coming, but I wouldn't go—not for her. I've turned hell loose on you, I guess. From what I hear you've got a long story to listen to." He paused and his lips worked.
"You're full of moonshine," he rasped. "This is all damned nonsense, but you're makin' a go of it! You ain't got brass or cheek, like I said—just nerve—nerve!" He paused once more and still she did not speak.
"That matter you spoke to me about, that money you need—it's all nonsense, all moonshine! When you got to have it?"
She was numb; her knees were giving; she said flatly: "Now—soon—within ten days."
He sniffed. "I'll take a chance with you; I'll invest in a little moonshine—because you've got a nerve, and because you—because you're makin' a go of it!" He said that last as though the words hurt him, as though it was gall to admit her success. "I'll let you have the thirty, and I'll fix it so's you can get more—when you need it; whenever you need it. But I've got to get a new bookkeeper first!"
She closed her eyes. She heard him grumbling more as he buttoned his coat close.
"Oh, I thank you—I thank you—"
"Don't thank me!" he snapped. He was at the door, opening it, to let the roar of rain and forest in on them. "You get it—" he moved back a step, "on one condition."
"An' that is that you'll let me come up here when I damn please—an' listen to 'em talk—an' listen—You're full of moonshine, but maybe you're right—about that four million a year—"
Something like a catch of breath checked him. He turned abruptly and went out into the rain. She saw him crawl through the curtains of the car, saw the white face of Phil Rowe as he started the motor. She turned to the mantel and lifted her face to the shadowed photograph of her father.
"All over," she whispered, and laughed shortly. "Saved—Foraker's Folly is respected—We've won father! We've—"
Thunder crashed, the rain abated, as though for breath, and came anew, the downpour rising in spume from the sod outside.
"Won?—Oh, father, I've lost!"
It was there that Aunty May found her, hands clasped, staring blankly before her. She was not crying, had not cried; it would have been better so; the suffering in her face would not have been so terrible had it found the relief of tears. The older woman stopped shortly.
"Helen! What is it?"
But she needed no reply. The old arms which for years had gestured only in irritation went about her hungrily; the old voice which had been so sour and sharp whispered softly in her ear. Helen turned and put her arms about the woman's neck and put her head wearily on a bony shoulder.
"There; there, I heard what he said. It's all over. You've come out on top of th' heap!"
"Oh, Aunty May—it is over—I drove him away; I didn't trust. I didn't take happiness—when it came— He's fought for me even when I suspected him—and I can't ever look into his face again—"
They sat down together in the big chair, Aunty May holding Helen on her lap, talking gently to her, tears in her own eyes, trying to provoke tears for the girl. But Helen talked in short, stiff sentences of her helplessness, the emptiness of her triumph. She had won her big fight but she had lost the joy of life.
The last light faded. Rain continued, a veritable cloudburst. Helen went to her room and bathed and dressed, cleansing herself mechanically. Downstairs Humphrey Bryant waited for her, waited with serious old eyes, leaning downward in his chair, tapping a foot rhythmically. He had so much to tell!
A lull in the rain.
Aunty May hung up her dishpan and draped the clean cloth over it. When she had wiped her hands she wiped her eyes.
She stood a long time in the doorway, peering at the lights in the men's shanty where a grimed crew talked of that day's fight and of Helen Foraker. A figure moved outside.
"Hey!" she called, in a cracking voice. The figure paused. "Send Joe here."
He came, scuttling through the fresh torrent and paused on the step and looked up at the woman with shock in his eyes.
"Black Joe, come in here!" she said impatiently.
He stepped inside, incredulous; for the first time in two decades she had addressed him!
"You've been wrong," she said. "You've been wrong for twenty years, you stubborn old devil! But I've had a lesson today—I—" brushing angrily at her eyes. "I've saw what misunderstandings lead to. You're wrong, but I give in, Joe. That's a woman's way; to give in, to yield, to take the blame. But I'll do it. I ain't a body to let things run along until they get serious!"
His face grew alive with amazement, with hope. He stared at her as she dabbed at her eyes with an apron corner.
"Well, you old fool, ain't you ever goin' to speak?" she cried.
Awkwardly he put a hand to her shoulder and her arms went about him.
For a long time they stood in embrace, hearts racing as they pumped out the bitterness and brought in new life, new hope.