(published in "Power Station", Colorado Springs, CO May 2000)
"Heidi!" Her mother's voice echoed through the canopy of green. "Come here, Dear. I need you!"
But Heidi Westman wasn't listening as she hunched in a defiant ball between two Spanish cedar trees.
"Life stinks," she grumbled to herself. Of all people, why did she have to be stuck with missionary parents—yanking her away from her friends just when school offered so many opportunities—soccer, debate team, band? Heidi had waited for these opportunities for years. Why now? Then there was her friend, Michelle. She'd probably never see her again. Why did she have to come to this hole in the middle of nowhere—stuck at a mission post just outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras? Why? Why? Why?
Heidi's lip quivered and tears flooded her eyes. She wished she had never been adopted 13 years ago. Her parents should have left her where they found her—wherever that was. Why couldn't they just be "normal" people—like everybody else with eight-hour jobs, TV, and a dog? A zillion questions tortured her mind as she studied a parade of black ants on the tree trunk in front of her.
Heidi gathered her angry thoughts and pulled herself up from the ground. She would help, but she certainly would not enjoy it—and neither would her parents. Visions of four miserable years of homeschooling and working with river kids who got her into this mess taunted her as she trudged back to the mission station. Prison would have been easier.
Heidi dragged herself across the wooden porch and into a tiny back den that was to be her bedroom.
"Come get your suitcases, Honey," her mother called from outside. "When the unloading is done, we'll settle in."
Heidi did as she was told, then slipped out the door and around the
back of the house. Ahead lay the trail through the forest that led to
the Choluteca River. She had heard her parents describe the river a
thousand times. She wanted to see if for herself.
Heidi stopped and fingered her long black hair off her olive skin. She scanned the foliage, more beautiful than any she had ever seen. The sparkling sun, filtering through the lush overgrowth, lit the path like a spotlight. The forest hummed with chattering wildlife.
Despite herself, Heidi turned her head and feasted on the magnificent beauty. Straight ahead she was drawn to a clearing where a trickle of excited chatter invited her attention.
"Bienvenida," said a tall, skinny girl with a twinge of nervousness in her voice. Several children approached the border of trees.
"G-Gracias," Heidi mumbled, dumbfounded by what unfolded before her eyes.
Filthy children in rags, scrawny bodies with matted hair, children no older than herself carrying babies on their hips and grasping toddlers' hands, standing like prisoners from a long-forgotten war.
Heidi's bewildered stare shifted quickly to the dump behind them that they called home. Dilapidated shacks, some no bigger than doghouses, huddled in a disheveled line not far from the stony edge of the half-dried-up river. Litter, mostly tin pans and paper, lay strewn about. There was no evidence of food anywhere.
"Have compassion—show love." Her mother's words rang in the young girl's ears. "Have compassion—show love."
Heidi's mouth dropped open in disbelief. They were real, these river children, and no one cared if they lived or died. They were vagabonds from the capital city whom nobody wanted—small human beings thrown away like trash! One box of sandwiches and milk from a church three miles away brought the only food they would taste until another day had passed, the missionary had said. One skimpy meal a day!
Heidi's heart burst with shame. She had so much. They had nothing!
She turned, racing back over the trail, past her parents, and into the small wooden house. In tears of bitter remorse, Heidi fled to her back room and collapsed with great, heaving sobs onto her small bed.
"Honey," a tender voice said as a gentle hand rubbed her quivering back. "What happened?"
"Oh, Mom," Heidi sobbed as she fell into the comforting arms of her mother. "Those poor, poor kids."
"Sweetheart," a husky voice said tenderly. A strong hand drew the face of his daughter toward his own, now flooded with tears of devotion. "This is the place where you were born."
(published in "Discovery Trails" magazine, Springfield, MO, April 2003)
"Leslie, it's time to go."
"Do you think I'm ready, Mr. Landis?" I asked as I sat in the saddle, shaking in my leather riding boots.
I asked the riding coach that because I had always been scared silly of horses. Too bad there aren't saddles for pigs. They're closer to the ground.
Scared silly or not, I always wanted to learn to ride a horse. Mom told me to just pray and smile whenever I was in the saddle, and I did just that.
My lessons every Saturday through the summer helped. Some. The saddle with the big seat and straps held me tight, and the hard hat made my head feel safe. Sally, the other coach, always walked right beside me and kept me from tumbling off.
Finally the day came that I could do it on my own, but only inside the corral. Going in circles made it easy, and I wasn't afraid at all! My big roan, Lady, had no place to run. Besides … she was too tired.
But now it was different. It was autumn and time for my last lesson outside the corral—and without Sally. Mr. Landis and his pinto, Chief, were taking Lady and me on a trail ride.
While Mr. Landis got Chief ready, Lady swished flies with her tail. Me? I just prayed in the saddle and smiled.
"We're going to ride through the woods and down the hill to the meadow, then circle back," Mr. Landis said as he checked Lady's cinch under my legs. "I know you can do it."
But I would rather have hung by my toenails from the barn roof.
"Easy for you to say, Cowboy!" I wanted to say, but I kept my big mouth shut and just smiled.
"Here we go!" Mr. Landis shouted as he mounted Chief and took the lead.
I followed with a click-click of my tongue, a slap of the reins on my horse's neck, and an earthquake in my stomach. Lucky for me, Lady was one breath away from dog meat. As usual, she was just too tired to run.
The colored leaves and bright blue sky made me forget how scared I was. I sucked in the fresh cool air and started having the greatest time of my riding life. Then—about half way down the trail—it happened.
Mr. Landis was singing some dumb cowboy song and I was smiling as we started down a slope on the trail.
Just as Mr. Landis glanced back to check on me, Chief tripped and, slick as a boulder on a ledge, Mr. Landis fell forward over his horse's head and tumbled smack-dab onto the hard ground with his leg bent backward.
"SNAP!" I heard, and we both knew his leg was broken.
"Leslie..." Mr. Landis moaned as he lay there in a puddle of pain, "you've got to go back for help. Remember all you've ... learned. Lady knows the way. Let her have her head."
"Y-Yes, Sir," I said, and in a second I forgot how scared I could be. Just one look at Mr. Landis sprawled on the ground told me I had to get help ... and fast!
"Let's go, Girl!" I commanded. I patted Lady on the neck, tugged both reins to the left, and turned her around on the hill.
Up the trail we went, doubling back over the same path.
When we got to the woods, all I could think of was poor Mr. Landis lying back there suffering. "God, please help him," I prayed. I wasn't even thinking about me!
I held tight to the horn of the saddle with one hand, click-clicked my tongue, and Lady started to trot. "Come on, Girl!" I shouted. "Mr. Landis needs help fast!"
For the first time in her life, Lady ran like the wind. She must have known.
In no time at all I reached the corral, screaming my head off about
poor Mr. Landis.
Me? I just sat on Lady in front of her stall until Sally came back and unstrapped me. Then she pulled me down into my wheelchair. I didn't feel much like smiling. All I could do was pray that Mr. Landis was OK.
He was. He got his cast off yesterday.