“Hello, Sheri! Are you there?” a friendly voice crackled from the shortwave radio. Australia’s School of the Air classes were ready to begin.
Sheri North sat up straight, arranged her school books a little, and adjusted the radio dial labeled squelch.
“I’m here, Mr. Walker,” she told her teacher.
Mr. Walker sat in an almost empty classroom a hundred miles away at Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia.
Sheri listened attentively while Mr. Walker finished calling the roll. Then she heard a horse whinny and her mind wandered outside to where Jumper, her pinto pony, pawed the parched earth of his pen. She glanced at the calendar above her desk—December 22—two more days and she’d be free for Christmas vacation. Though it was only nine o’clock, the hot, dry air told her the day would be another scorcher.
It’s funny, she thought, how my cousin in the United States always sends Christmas cards showing ice and snow. She’d probably be surprised to know that south of the equator we have summer in December and winter in July.
“Sheri! Sheri North! Come in!” an anxious voice shouted.
Sheri’s daydreams were shattered by Mr. Walker’s call over the radio.
“Oh! I’m sorry, Mr. Walker,” Sheri said as she pressed the microphone switch. “I guess my mind wandered.”
“Thank heavens you’re still there! I thought for a minute that you had disappeared too.”
“What do you mean too?” Sheri asked.
“Do you know Donny Fisher? He lives about ten miles north of you.”
“Sure, he’s a little red-haired boy my cousin sometimes plays with. He’s the only other eight-year-old in the whole neighborhood.”
“Well, he doesn’t answer his radio this morning; and he hasn’t missed a single day of class since we started this term. Do you think your father could drive over and see if the family is having some kind of trouble?”
Sheri tried to stifle her fears for a moment as thoughts of danger flashed through her mind. She knew families living in Australia’s outback (isolated rural countryside) had to be self-sufficient—modern-day pioneers, her father always called them. They were so isolated from each other, they even held church services over the shortwave radio.
Sheri’s father insisted that all his children learn to use a fire extinguisher, for there were no fire engines available. He taught them to shoot a rifle to drive off the dingos (wild dogs) that sometimes frightened the cattle with their wolf-like howling. Even her two-year-old brother was beginning to ride a horse, for horses were the only sure transportation across the parched, dry desert where cars and trucks habitually broke down.
“My father is out with the sheep,” Sheri explained. “He’s been gone three days and we don’t expect him home until tomorrow.”
“What about your mother?” Mr. Walker asked. “Could she go see if they need help?”
“I’ll ask, but I don’t think so. The baby is feverish and my mother can’t leave her when she’s so sick.”
“Then you’ll have to go,” Mr. Walker said in a firm voice. “It’s quite a responsibility, Sheri, but you’re the oldest in your family. People must grow up fast out here if they expect to survive.”
Sheri gulped hard. It wasn’t the ten miles that bothered her so much—she could ride that far in less than two hours—what worried her most was how she could help when she arrived. What if their house has burned down and they’re all dead? What if they’ve been attacked by outlaw aborigines or by a pack of dingos? What could I possibly do to help?
“All right . … I’ll go if my mother says it’s OK,” she hesitantly agreed. “But I want you to know I’m plenty scared! I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there.”
“Look. You just radio me, and if they’re sick or hurt, I’ll send a flying doctor over in a plane to help out. You won’t be alone for long,” Mr. Walker consoled.
“Just one more thing,” Sheri added. “You won’t mark me absent from school, will you?”
“No, I’ll give you full credit,” Mr. Walker chuckled. “Now skedaddle and get moving. Don’t forget to take a canteen, and don’t ride too fast. You can wear out a horse in no time at all in this heat.”
“I’ll be careful,” Sheri assured him.
Within minutes Sheri had saddled and mounted Jumper. Her mother slung a pair of heavy saddlebags behind Jumper’s saddle. Then she smiled and patted Sheri’s knee.
“There’s a first-aid kit in this side,” Mother explained, pointing to one bag. “I’ve packed a lunch in the other one and also a pistol. Don’t use it unless you have to!”
“Don’t worry, Mother, I won’t. I hate the loud bang and the way it kicks,” Sheri said, nudging her horse and trotting away.
“Radio me when you get there so I can stop worrying,” her mother called.
Sheri waved, but didn’t look back. Her mind was on the problems ahead. She rode past scattered dwarf acacia trees, saltbush shrubs, and tough spinifex grass growing in large clumps in the sandy areas.
Suddenly, Jumper pulled up short, rearing on his hind legs so quickly he almost threw Sheri from the saddle.
A large red kangaroo leaped from a bush in front of them. He was followed by another and then two more.
Sheri sighed, then called after them, “G’wan home you crazy wallaroos!”
The sun was high when the Fisher Sheep Station (ranch) appeared on the horizon. Sheri spotted a man on horseback and Jumper broke into a gallop.
Approaching the jackaroo (apprentice sheepherder) and his dog, Sheri was puzzled to see everything appearing pretty much as normal.
“Hold up there, young lady!” the man called. “What’s the big rush?”
“I rode over to help save the Fisher family,” Sheri said.
“Save ’em?” The man looked confused. “Save ’em from what? The ants or the lizards?”
“No! You don’t understand.” Sheri didn’t appreciate his dry sense of humor. “Mr. Walker, my teacher, sent me over to save them when Donny didn’t answer the radio at roll call this morning. I’ve got to help!”
The man burst out laughing, but stopped when he saw a tear run down Sheri’s cheek. “Hey, look, miss, if you really want to help and you don’t mind getting your hands greasy, you can ride over there to the tool repair shop and help Mr. Fisher fix the electric generator. He’s been working on it since late last night, and I’m sure he’d be happy to have all the help he can get.”
“You mean Donny didn’t answer the radio because there’s no electricity?”
“Kind of seems that way, doesn’t it?” the man said, his eyes twinkling. “And you’ve had an unexpected day off from school.”