THE MOLLOY BROTHERS GIVE THEIR ALL by Sophie Littlefield

February 1914

Tom Molloy didn’t want to whinge - but how was a man supposed to tolerate this heat? The sun blazed as it sank toward earth – yet come night they’d freeze in the bark-walled miners’ hut. Home, in Tamworth, never seemed so far away.

Tom wiped the sweat off his brow and glanced at his brother: Reg, not two meters away on the heap, sprawled in the white-clay mullock, shaking the pan of tailings and picking through for potch. Reg, his eyes hard-set like he was sighting down a rifle.

Tom shook his own pan dispiritedly. Oh, there’d been a good bit of potch in the heap, but very little opal to show for it.

Not two months ago the cry had gone up in New Town, and Tom and Reg had come along to Dunumbral Hill like so many of the others. Tools and swag on their backs, already pale with dust. Built the hut: the cypress poles ate into the money from home, but men were prizing out opals worth hundreds of pounds. Like taking wool from a sheep. Oh, it cost a few pretty quid for the Gelignite, too, but how else to blast the hole? And the sound – the echo, the way it thundered down through his gut!

Since then: not much. A small bag of nobbies rolled tight and buried behind the hut. Reg added to it only after dark, burning a bit of precious kero to dig down to the hidey-hole.

Not enough to send to Ma, widowed six months and with only Mick to help out in the butchery – and Mick just thirteen.

And after tomorrow it would be just Tom scrabbling in this field of craters with a hundred other dirt-baked men. The thought made his mouth go dry.

Making sure Reg wasn’t looking, Tom dumped out his pan. Nothing worth piss in that lot. Tom stood and worked the kinks out of his legs. “Almost time for tea,” he murmured hopefully.

Reg, if he thought the hour too early for quitting, said nothing.

***

By nightfall the sounds of metal against stone were silenced. Quiet conversations, popping fires, a didgeroo or fiddle here and there throughout the camp. But in the light of the kero lamps, it looked frightening strange to Tom. All those holes, shadowy piles of rubble like giant anthills.

The brothers ate their bush turkey. Taste like chook, not bad. Reg caught the thing himself, plucked and roasted and cut it up, wiping his knife on his daks. Reg ate fast, went back to tending the flask. Offered the flask to Tom, who took a nervous pull. Tom was seventeen, old enough for spirits. Plenty old enough. But he hadn’t the knack.

Reg could nurse a flask like a mother’s tit. He was twenty. Mal, the oldest brother, did even better, but he was dead a year – died before Pa.

Tom felt the liquor burn down his throat and struggled to keep it there peaceful but came up coughing. Reg’s expression never changed.

After a while Tom was tired of the silence so he said:

“I wish there weren’t a war, Reg.”

“No help for that. Besides, lots of boys would give anything to go – I’ll see a bit of the world, won’t I.”

No comfort came from Reg’s words.

“But Cairo - what’s there, nothing you can’t get here…right Reg?”

Reg shrugged, picked up his pick, turned it this way and that in the lamp light. Put it down and picked up his auger. Set to sharpening the thing. Just like every night: no one’s picks and augers were sharper than the Molloy boys’.

But sharp tools hadn’t helped. “What if I don’t find any?” Tom said suddenly. He hadn’t meant to say it – it came bursting from his mouth on a flood of fear, churned up by the bile in his gut. “No opal – soon enough no food for my belly and nothing for Ma and Mick? What then?”

His voice betrayed him, skittering high. Tom was a coward, and he knew it. If cowardice was something he could slice off himself like a hand or an ear, he’d do it now, never mind the pain and the blood. If only.

“It’ll come,” Reg said, voice steady. Like Pa’s voice, but kinder. Always kinder.

There’d been four Molloy boys: Mick, the pretty baby, never knew a day of want. Mal, eyes as blue as a November sky. Tom good for nothing and he knew it. And Reg, always there to come between him and Pa’s anger, between him and Ma’s disappointment.

Reg tested the auger’s point on his thumb. “The opal will come,” he repeated. “Keep hiding the nobbies. When there’s a new strike you follow.”

“But this one’s flushed out now, the men’s already leaving –“

“It’s too soon to go. Wait for a big one.”

“But what if it’s cleaned out? All of it? They say over in Coober Petty – “

“There’s big mobs of opal left. Plenty.”

How could Reg be so sure? Tom felt his stomach roll, the meal he’d eaten untethered and knocking around.

“Tom.”

Tom rolled his eyes miserably toward his brother, aware of prickling wet tears burning in the bottom of his eyes. Swiped hard at them. “What.”

“How about sweet Elizabeth Brown?” Reg asked, lamp light glinting off his teeth, a rare smile, dug up for his benefit, Tom knew. “You’ll get your big strike, and then you can court her.”

Elizabeth Brown, the nurse from the Bush Association, recently arrived and working in the Cottage Hospital in New Town. Her soft hands getting accustomed to the hard work of setting bones and mopping blood and pus from the floor. They’d seen her – sure they had, a glimpse of white cotton, her smart cap and long skirts, as she walked briskly down Morilla Street.

They’d seen her, had Tom and Reg - and every other man in town. Elizabeth wasn’t the only woman around, but she might as well have been; men kept their wives and daughters well hidden. New Town was a man’s town. Its business was opal and sweat and failure.

“She’s nice, I guess,” Tom said, for his brother’s sake. He didn’t look at girls like his brothers did. It was one more failing, one more lack he couldn’t account for. But he tried. For Reg.

Reg wasn’t fooled. He sighed and set the auger down.

“Can’t I go too? To the war?” Tom blurted. Another thing he hadn’t meant to say.

Reg said nothing for a moment. He toed a few glowing embers, spit out by the fire, back toward the flames.

“You know you can’t,” he finally said. “You know how it is: one of us for the war, and one for Ma.”

It was the bargain they’d struck. Who set the terms, Tom didn’t know: but when he and Reg left Tamworth that chilly dawn, it was done.

***

May 1915

Elizabeth Brown Molloy stood on her veranda, a hand to her back. She was heavily pregnant, and Reg had to take out the wash bucket for her now. She watched him dump it into the street. He set the bucket on the step and came to stand next to her. Cupped her chin in his hand, smiled that creased, tired smile. Her Reg didn’t talk much, but his eyes said enough.

Along the street came a man shouting. “A body, they’ve found – a body!”

The Molloy’s house was on Morilla, only a few paces from the hotel. Men gathered outside, full of their breakfast, some readying to leave for the settlements. A few were like her husband: businessmen, their work in town. All turned to see.

The speaker was hardly more than a boy – a young man in miner’s gear, holding up a length of dirty white cotton. On closer inspection it could be seen to be the sleeve of a man’s shirt.

“Out near Dunumbral Hill! In a heap out there, they found it! Rotted past the stink, it is, near down to the bone!”

Since a new strike had been found not five meters from the old one, they’d gone back in, some blokes had. Into the old holes like scorpions, to dig a few more meters down and see if opal had been overlooked.

“Dunumbral - that was yours, wasn’t it Reg,” Elizabeth said.

Reg was a strong man, and he didn’t flinch, but his hand tightened on her waist. It must be horrid to find something like that, the remains of a man left like so much rubbish. Elizabeth thought mining to be brutal work, all for the homely rocks they brought into her husband’s office, in bags and socks and buckets, to be sorted and graded and weighed. Well: she shouldn’t complain, the rock had bought this house, the cradle for the baby. The rock had brought Reg here to New Town, and Reg had taken her away from the work that frightened and overwhelmed her, the viscera and the moaning and the dying.

The replacement nurse was far better for the job. And now there was a second as well. They smirked at Elizabeth when they met in the street.

Well, she’d bear their disdain, if they would bear the parade of the sick and the injured.

Elizabeth wasn’t strong. But she had found a man who was.

***

July 1915

News of the war came almost daily. So many of the boys dead at Gallipoli, more every day. England, France – no one had given more than Australia; she’d sent her best, and her best fell and mingled their blood with the foreign earth.

Waiting his turn in the telegraph office on a temperate winter day, Reg thought about Tom. Maybe Tom would have survived the months at Cairo. Maybe his body, slight and fair as Reg’s was strong and sun-darkened, would have toughened up as the ranks went through training.

Maybe Tom would have been one of the lucky ones, living another day and another and another in the cold straits, beaten back but not felled by the Turks, their crumbling empire reducing them to the brutishness of those with nothing to lose.

But that was the kind of luck that killed even a strong man on the inside. Reg knew that Tom could never bear it.

Tom was no digger, and he was no miner, either. The cold nights, the days of poor dirt and disappointment, the burnt and peeling skin – a few weeks of that had nearly done him in. He couldn’t have managed even a week on his own, without Reg to help him along.

Reg gave his message to the operator: the baby had come. Elizabeth had lost a lot of blood but she would live; for now all his mother needed to know was that she had a grandson.

Named little Tom, for her boy lost in the war.

A small recompense, sure, with Mick dead from influenza. But something.

Reg turned to go. Out into the bright day, the sun taking his sight for a moment. Blind, he remembered the last day at Dunumbral Hill.

At nightfall he’d thought of sending his brother home, to Tamworth. But what would his mother do with him? She was stretching to feed herself and Mick as it was - and Tom was no help in the butchery and no good with the sheep.

It had been hard to wait until Tom slept, hard to hear his quiet sobs in the chill of midnight in the hut.

Harder still to take that sharpened auger, to hold it cold metal in his hands, and then to bring it down sharp and hard, his hands strong and his aim true and fast.

Hardest of all to cover his brother’s mouth, to muffle his gasping cry as the life blood poured out of the hole in his chest – but Reg held him fast, he held him until the body started to grow cold in his arms.

Into the hole, eight meters down, his brother’s body fell with the a thud. Nothing like the sound of the picks, the clank of the bucket, the crash of the rubble.

Reg left the settlement as pink dawn seeped into the sky, the men stirring and stoking fires. They paid him no mind as he walked toward New Town, his few belongings hanging from his shoulders.

The bag of nobbies pressed against his stomach, fast inside his shirt. Not a lot. Enough, perhaps, for a new start. Enough to buy a bit of peace. He’d bartered more for less, sure – sold his soul to save poor Tom from the harsh world.

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