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Winter and guilt didn't go well together in Dry Creek, Montana. Not even for Mrs. Hargrove, who, after decades of living in the small town, was used to the icy snow that sometimes trapped a person alone inside her house for days with only her own thoughts for company.
Mrs. Hargrove had lived her life with few regrets, so she generally spent the snowy days peacefully chopping vegetables for soup or putting together thousand-piece puzzles. This past winter she hadn't been able to do either of those things, however. Her conscience was troubling her, and she lacked the focus needed to figure out a puzzle or decide what to put into a pot of soup. instead, she sat and stared at the pictures on the mantel over her fireplace. There was the picture of her and her late husband, taken on their wedding day. And then there was a picture of her daughter, Doris June, taken when she graduated from high school. It wasn't a particularly good picture because, even though Doris June was smiling, she had a certain stiffness in her face that Mrs. Hargrove hadn't noticed until recently.
The graduation picture had been a last-minute idea and had been taken in a department store instead of at the high school like the pictures of the other students. Doris June hadn't seemed to care about a picture, but Mrs. Hargrove had wanted one even though, for years now, she had expected to exchange that graduation picture for a glowing picture of Doris June on her wedding day.
The wedding picture was going to be the real picture on the mantel place. It was what Mrs. Hargrove was waiting for.
But that wedding day never came. This winter, as she sat on her sofa looking at the picture she did have, Mrs. Hargrove finally accepted the truth. Doris June was not going to get married. The one huge miscalculation Mrs. Hargrove had made in her life had come back to haunt her and she couldn't stop fretting about it. She had unknowingly pushed away the only man Doris June had ever loved. For years, Mrs. Hargrove had hoped fate would take care of everything in time, but nothing had changed.
It had all come crashing back into Mrs. Hargrove's awareness in early January when she and Charley Nelson had sat down at her kitchen table to begin writing a history of their small town. The two of them were the oldest of the two hundred some residents of Dry Creek, and, when the state tourism board asked the town to write a section for an upcoming guidebook, everyone said she and Charley were the natural ones to write it. Both of them agreed to do the work, thinking it would be a good way for them to pass the cold winter months pleasantly.
It didn't take them long to realize what kind of trouble they were in, however. They knew it as soon as they opened the large white envelope the state tourism board had sent in care of the local cafe. Mrs. Hargrove and Charley had not known until then that the guidebook was being called Stop at One-Stop-Sign Towns in Southern Montana. Each town was supposed to begin their two pages of history and visitor attractions with an opening paragraph telling what made their particular old red stop sign unique.
It was a clever advertising idea and the state had invited several high schools in the area to help them with the tourism guide so the whole thing was a worthy project. Some art students were even going to take pictures of the signs and make a collage. Mrs. Hargrove and Charley were both one-hundred percent in favor of anything that helped students learn.
However, the stop sign in Dry Creek was the last thing either one of them wanted to write about.
Mrs. Hargrove wished people would just forget about that old sign.
Dry Creek's one stop sign was at the south end of town next to the Enger home place. Twenty-five years ago two local teenagers had hit the sign with an old blue pickup truck as they were beginning their elopement to Las Vegas. The passenger side of the truck had bent the signpost until it looked like the smashed half of a valentine. Both being responsible individuals, the teens had reported the damage to the sheriff, who then called their parents. From there, everything spun out of control until eventually the eloping couple were torn apart.
No one knew whether it was because of the broken-heart shape of the sign or the gossip about the two thwarted teens, but the story of the stop sign was told and retold until it became as close to a legend as anything Dry Creek had. A local musician even wrote a song about the heart sign and it played on the radio for a while so that people here and there throughout the state knew the story.
To this day, people would periodically place fresh flowers at the base of the rusted sign or carve their initials on the bent post. Every once in a while, there was talk of fixing the sign or even just pulling it down since the intersection it guarded was scarcely used any longer. But no one in an official capacity seemed able to make a decision to disturb the sign after its crooked form became part of the history of Dry Creek.
Charley had his elbows on Mrs. Hargrove's worn oak table and his right hand was curled around a cup of her fine brewed coffee. "You would have thought someone died when that sign was hit."
The contents of the envelope were sitting in front of him on the table. It was dusk and enough light was coming in the windows of Mrs. Hargrove's dining room that she hadn't turned on the overhead light yet.
"Sometimes a tragedy of the heart stays with people longer than a death," Mrs. Hargrove said after a moment or two. She didn't even notice that the light was fading. Her voice sounded tired to her own ears. "Look at Romeo and Juliet."
Charley grunted. "It was the parents in that one, too. Everybody always blames the parents for not understanding."
The two sat in silence as the room got a little darker.
Finally, Mrs. Hargrove said. "Well, we understood. We didn't approve, but we knew what was what. And at least we never tried to cover it up or anything. It was all out in the open. Everyone who was here twenty-five years ago knew it was Doris June and Curt who hit that sign. At least we've never denied anything."
Curt was Charley's son. He was the one driving the pickup when it hit the sign as he was eloping to Las Vegas with Doris June.
Mrs. Hargrove looked down at her coffee cup. "If things had turned out differently, the story of them and that sign would be a funny family storyjust the kind of thing we'd laugh about as we bounced our grandbabies on our knees." Mrs. Hargrove stopped to sigh. She had no grandchildren. Still, she had a daughter who needed her. "As it is, I doubt either Curt or Doris June would like to see a reminder of that day in print anywhere and I'm not sure I have the stomach for it, either."
"If only they hadn't been so responsible and gone to the sheriff about the sign," Charley said. "We raised those kids to have values, and that's why it happened the way it did."
"Doris June always did tell the truth."
"Curt, too." Charley paused. "Of course, we couldn't let them get married once we knew what they were planning. Not at their ages."
Mrs. Hargrove lifted her cup of coffee and took a sip. "Who would think a little stop sign could change so many lives?"
Charley nodded. "It broke my son's heart."
Mrs. Hargrove looked up from her coffee cup at that. "It didn't break it so bad he didn't marry that New York woman the first chance he got."
"She wasn't from New York," Charley protested. "It was Chicago. And he didn't marry her until after he spent those four years in the army."
Mrs. Hargrove waved away the discrepancy. "All I know is she wasn't from here and she kept Curt away from here. He should have been here beside you running your farm all those years instead of waiting until you decided to retire. Besides, Doris June, at least, showed her affections were sincere. She might have just turned seventeen, but she always did understand loyalty. She wasn't off marrying someone else. Once she made up her mind, she kept it made up."
"Some folks call that being inflexible."
"And some call it being solid and reliable."
"Well, whatever they call it, I didn't notice you giving Doris June and Curt your blessing on that day, either," Charley said. "It wasn't only the Nelson family that was up in arms."
Mrs. Hargrove nodded. He was right. "What else could we do? Doris June had just turned seventeen. I wanted her to go to college and have a chance at the world. You know I didn't object to Curt himself, it was just the timing of things."
"Yeah, me, too. I loved Doris June like the daughter I never had. But I thought I was being a good parent. What did two seventeen-year-old kids know about getting married?"
"They were just too young," Mrs. Hargrove said, and Charley nodded.
They spent the next five minutes drinking their coffee and trying to think of something else they could use to show the tourism board that Dry Creek was an exciting town worthy of visitors.
"Who wants to look at an old stop sign anyway?" Charley finally said.
Mrs. Hargrove nodded. "It's too bad I'm not still planting the field of pansies every spring. There's a place in southern California that charges people to look at its field of flowersranunculus, I thinkwe could have the same sort of thing here for free. Maybe I should just plant the field like I used to. That would give something for tourists to see."
"You mean the field in back of your farm?" Charley asked with a frown. Mrs. Hargrove lived year-round in her house in Dry Creek these days and no longer spent the summers on the farm she'd worked with her late husband. "You leased that land to Curt, remember? I think he wants to plow it up this spring and plant it with wheat. I don't think he'd like people tramping through his wheat."
"It's the hillside on the edge of the field that I'd use. It's too steep for wheat. You'd never get a combine in to harvest a crop. Besides, I was only saying if. If doesn't mean when."