“Ride to Heaven’s Gate,” Friend, Aug.–Sept. 1985, 10
Eleven-year-old Beth Burroughs pulled the reins gently but firmly to the right and guided her horse, Ebony, down the side of a rocky dry wash. The homemade wreath of flowers she had slung over the saddle horn bounced as she maneuvered her animal down the little zigzagging ravine. By taking this route, Beth would save herself a good mile and a half of riding time on the road. She had to get to Heaven’s Gate Cemetery and back home so that she could help her mother with the wash.
The predawn light had turned the mist that hung over Hampton Lake into silver lace as Beth galloped along its south shore. Her horse was starting to show signs of strain, so she decided to pull up and let him rest.
Looping the reins about a large dead limb that protruded from other woody shore rubble, Beth knelt at the water’s edge and gazed at her rippled, distorted reflection. If it had been someone’s first view of her, she thought, she would have been as badly misrepresented as Rebecca had been.
Beth had met Rebecca Johnson when she had moved with her parents into the small yellow house on Banberry Road two years earlier. Rebecca was “different” from the other girls Beth knew. Although Rebecca was four years older than Beth, she still played dolls with the Wileys’ five-year-old daughter, and she didn’t go to school and couldn’t even read. Beth had heard a neighbor tell her mother that Rebecca was retarded because of brain damage she had incurred at birth.
For a long time Beth, as well as her friends, had had nothing to do with the girl in the yellow house. After all, Rebecca was thirteen years old, and she could hardly do up her button shoes or even talk in complete sentences. Beth’s friends always laughed at the new girl.
Ebony lifted his dark head, shook his mane, and went back to drinking. Beth gazed fondly at him a moment, then her eyes returned to the rippling water. She remembered her father talking about the worth of the individual soul, about how each person that ever was, is, or ever would be is a child of God and therefore special in his or her own way. He said that no one should judge anybody else by appearance because his character, like his soul, is inside and can only really be seen by Heavenly Father.
But somehow, Beth painfully recalled, her father’s teachings had been hard to put into practice whenever Rebecca was around—until the day of the field mouse. …
Beth and her friends had just crossed the field and started up the dirt road that led to the schoolhouse, when a mouse scampered out in front of them. Beth and another girl picked up some rocks and threw them at the tiny, frightened rodent. One of the rocks struck it. As it lay kicking in the dirt, squeaking pitifully, Rebecca came running up. She dropped to her knees, cuddled the wee creature in one hand, and stroked it gently. After a moment the mouse stopped jerking; it lay there looking up at the girl, then closed its eyes and died. Rebecca, whimpering softly, started digging a little hole with her hands in the earth beside the road. The other girls, except for Beth, giggling and whispering under their breath, went on to school.
Rebecca picked a handful of wildflowers and placed them over the mouse-size mound, then wiped at her tears with a dirty hand. Beth offered Rebecca a handkerchief, which she accepted and rubbed across her tearstained face. Then she handed it back to Beth. Gazing at the mound, Rebecca said, “God wouldn’t take time to make anything He didn’t love.” Never before had Beth witnessed such simple, Christ-like compassion and respect for life.
Ebony lifted his head again, his thirst now satisfied. Beth lingered a minute or two, watching her reflection clear and sharpen in the settling water. Then she remounted Ebony and continued down the road.
Mr. Flannagan chugged by in his Model T, waving and honking as he traveled in the opposite direction. Such a noisy, happy machine, Beth thought, then decided she was wrong. Machines might be noisy, all right, but they didn’t have feelings. People could feel happy. She had been happy, very happy in the time she had spent with Rebecca after the day of the mouse’s burial. Beth had made more and more visits to the yellow house on Banberry Road. She and Rebecca had helped Sister Johnson bake cookies, walked the fence in the big grassy field just down from Tucker’s Mill, and lain on their backs, watching the clouds sail wildly by in the yellow sky.
Rebecca had a smile for everyone, a smile, Beth was sure, that could light up the world. She was like a little child. But had not the Savior Himself taught that “of such is the kingdom of heaven”? Beth hadn’t minded the funny looks some of her old friends gave her every now and again after she became friends with Rebecca. Her real friends respected her for her feelings. Besides, she knew Heavenly Father approved, and He was her most valued friend.
As Beth’s horse clip-clopped past the bright red covered bridge a half mile from Heaven’s Gate Cemetery, she couldn’t help but think about Rebecca’s death a year ago. Rebecca had disappeared into a neighbor’s burning house and lowered a small child out a window into someone’s waiting arms just before a section of roof collapsed on her, burying her beneath the fiery timbers.
Beth laid the homemade wreath of flowers on Rebecca’s grave. A couple of minutes later she again climbed onto Ebony’s back and rode out of Heaven’s Gate.
The sun seemed to perch on top of the mesa as horse and rider turned up the little treelined path toward home.
“Did you have a good ride, honey?” Beth’s father asked as he stepped from the barn, leading a plow horse.
“Sure did,” Beth replied, walking her horse toward him. “There’s a lot to see when the sun comes up. First you see a little of this, then a little of that. Pretty soon everything is all lit up as pretty as can be. As pretty as a good memory. As pretty as Rebecca Johnson.”