This all began when the boys and I took to the bush. Having taken our leave of Her Majesty’s penal institution, we established a hut in the forest on the slope of a mountain. We took our water from a stream that ran down the rock face as the snow on the peak melted, and for meat we hunted kangaroos and whatever slow and plump birds we could hit with a fowling piece – mostly kookaburras.

In our hideaway, we proceeded to plan our big heist. With such rich takings from the goldfields, we saw an opportunity to buy our tickets out of the colony and head somewhere outside of Queen Victoria’s purview. Now, I won’t bog you down with details, most of which you’ve no doubt read in the papers by now anyway; not that they succeeded in printing much else but lies, I might add. Suffice it to say, our robbery of the Castlemaine gold escort went off without a hitch, excepting one injury on our side and two on theirs. A stray shot from the driver’s repeater bounced off a boulder and took off Ben’s little finger, which he complained about incessantly.

It wasn’t as big a score as what Gardiner and his mates pulled off in ’61, but it was enough to set us up reasonably well for a while and potentially get us passage to Fiji with new names; from there, we hoped to find our way to America. However, we decided we ought to take a last indulgence of the luxuries afforded men of this colony before we left it forever.

Now, one of the inescapable truths of the world is that all men have carnal urges. The desire to pleasure the body can all too often see a man driven by the ache in his stomach or the ache lower down. My own father was a victim of such urges, his insatiable appetite for hard booze and meat leading him into petty crimes to fund the obsession. He grew fat, and died at the age of thirty seven on a thunderbox with a bottle of ale in one hand and a leg of turkey in the other. His heart had given out before he could satisfy his lust.

As for the other tastes, it seems that as soon as boys get to a certain age there becomes a longing in their loins that is harder to tame than a lion, and many an entrepreneurial madam has seen this as a perfect opportunity to open for business in the colonies. You see, here in Australia there are just not enough women to satisfy the demand for their company. For every lady there’s at least three or four men, so what is one to do when starved for the sweet embraces of the fairer sex? Some men decide to live as chaste as monks and drown out the longings through prayers or liquor. Some take the sodomite’s path and couple with men. But there’s a special fondness they all have for the houses of ill-repute, though precious few miners can rub enough coins together for the services on offer.

The following is not a brag or boast. Indeed, for myself at least, it is anything but a proud event. But humans often delight in the absurd or the humiliating – so long as it ain’t them that’s the subject of the conversation – and this is as entertaining a story as anything else I shall have to impart. A gentleman should never “kiss and tell” but, by crumb, sometimes one must make an exception.

By this stage, we had been on the run over a week. Our forest hideaway now lay abandoned as the police began to scour the bush in search of us. We had to keep moving to stay one step ahead but we were in desperate need of some relief. We headed down to a small town where the gold seemed to have dried up a some months prior. We arrived at dusk and saw the place was quiet as a tomb. All that was left there were a few white tents from the handful of miners that refused to admit defeat; a general store run by an old Welshman and his half-wit son; and a hotel behind which we hitched our mounts.

This hotel was a handsome wooden building that had clearly seen some serious money changing hands up to a point. The outside was whitewashed and red flags fringed with bullion draped down from the verandah. Above the door was a cast iron bell and painted in block letters on the boards was the name of the place, The Tiger’s Den.

We were in a state, the four of us. Our clothes were filthy and smelly, our faces were grimy and swarthy from the campfire smoke. We entered the hotel and were greeted by one of the classiest joints I reckon I’ve ever seen. There was wallpaper on the walls, a stone fireplace, kerosene lamps dotted everywhere, and lithographs of people and places we’d never see with our own eyes. The bar counter had been polished to a bright sheen, and on the wall behind it was the flayed skin of a Bengal tiger, pegged out flat. There was a piano at the far end of the room that had brass candleholders on the front and spread out around the room were ladies of all ages, all of whom were as attractive to us as a ham hock is to a starving dog. Of course, by another man’s standards they were really quite plain at best, and somewhat feral at worst, but to us they were like goldfields goddesses who could make our wishes come to pass.

Standing imperiously at the centre of the bar was a woman of about sixty years. Her face looked like old leather pulled tight around the horn of an anvil, but she had applied paint to give her lips and cheeks the colour of vigour that was otherwise lacking. She wore a red silk dress with black fringing that was unlike any garb I had ever seen. Every knobbly finger was adorned with a ring and around her neck was no less than a half dozen gold chains, some bearing pendants or lockets. Her ears were pierced, and from each of her sagging lobes dangled a dewdrop shaped pearl on a silver hook.

“Good Lord,” was the first thing she said to us, “you men look like shit!”

The woman spoke with an accent I could not recognise; I would later learn it was American. She introduced herself as Madam Le Tigre. When Jack went to shake her hand she threw her hands up.

“Mister, if I touch those mitts I shall surely catch something. We offer baths. For you boys, I will happily provide them for free!”

“Alright,” said Jack, “I can’t turn my nose up at that.”

So Madam Le Tigre sent some girls to draw baths for us. While we waited, we stood at the bar too afraid to touch the counter, lest we sully its polish.

Madam Le Tigre cracked a smile. “Would you be looking for a drink while you wait?”

“I’d murder for a mouthful of whiskey,” says Ben, reaching into the pouch on his belt for money. As dirty as we were, the madam didn’t care about how dirty our money was. We all bought drinks and soon enough the women reappeared. The Madam picked Jack and Ben to go off for a wash first. It was just Tom and I left behind as they disappeared out back.

Madam Le Tigre then felt free to ask us about who we were and what we were about. I explained that we were on the run and on our way out of the country. I suppose the liquor had loosened my lips for I began divulging secrets to this hatchet-faced she-Yankee with the Parisian title. I described the escort robbery and how hard we had ridden to get out of the district without being spotted, and on, and on. Tom chimed in occasionally to mention a detail I had missed. Madam Le Tigre was apparently enthralled by the tale and plied me and Tom with whiskey until a voice from the back of the building sang out that our baths were ready.

Tom and I were led out back with a woman on each arm. While Madam Le Tigre took me by the arm, Tom’s escort was a tiny blonde girl who seemed suspiciously young for such employment, but he was too drunk by this point to notice or care. We each had a room and went inside. The madam stayed in the passage as I went in. Seated next to the brass bathtub was a young woman with the sweetest face I think I had ever seen. Her hair tumbled down in ebony coloured ringlets and she was dressed in a shift, knickerbockers, black stockings and boots.

“Your bath is ready, sir. If you will disrobe, I will hang your clothes up outside to air out.”

I was a little confused by the way that she made no effort to move. I was hesitant but began to remove my clothes. I have to say, there’s nothing like the relief that comes from feeling the air on your skin when you’ve been running around in the same clothes without changing for weeks. I stripped naked as a newborn and placed the clothes in a basket before sliding into the warm water.

I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I heard the girl leave the room with the basket, but did not see. After a few minutes she returned. She came up to the bath and sat by my head and looked down into my eyes.

“My name is Lucie. What’s yours?”

“Frank Hinch,” I said. Without prompting, Lucie plunged her hand into the water and began ladeling it over my chest and arms with her cupped fingers. She took up a cloth and soaked it before wiping my face down.

“You’re a handsome cove, Frank Hinch,” she said. I studied her face. She had dark green eyes, wide cheekbones and her nose was straight with a gentle curve upwards at the tip. Her lips were soft and pink and looked lovely when stretched out into a smile. The feeling of her hand wiping over my skin was soothing until she plunged it deep beneath the surface of the water. Her fingers reached out and clutched at my manhood, rolling bits around and squeezing gently with her fingers. I just about jumped out of the water.

“What are you doing?”

“My job, Mr. Hinch. This is all part of the service. Please relax.”

She began to play with my wife-pleaser under the water, which was, while enjoyable, quite startling. You see, I had never been to a hotel like this before, nor indeed had I ever been in the loving embrace of a maiden – fair or otherwise – up to that moment, thus had no point of reference to conceive of how the ladies in such a place might conduct their trade. Though I had suspected that the joint’s prosperity did not come from people buying drinks once we walked in, now the truth was clear and fondling my plums in a bathtub.

Lucie stood and began to undress. It was at this moment that I noticed something unusual about the girl I had not taken stock of upon entering. Her left arm dangled at her side, withered and wasted looking. It was cocked at the elbow and the hand looked malformed. She removed her shift to reveal her ivory white skin and full breasts that drooped like sandbags, quite different to what I had seen in paintings of nudes. She loosened the drawstring on her knickerbockers and dropped them to the floor. Her left leg, much like her arm, appeared somewhat malformed; turned in at the knee and showing no signs of strength. Her weak limbs gave her appearance, when standing erect, the effect of being lopsided, though when seated she evidently knew how to hide this.

“I should tell you, my nickname in this place is ‘Lefty Lucie’. I think you can tell why. But don’t worry; I’m quite capable.”

Now, I won’t go into details here, for some things ought to remain private, but I will tell you with no word of a lie that Lucie had better strength and dexterity in her one good hand than most men have in two.

Some time later, we four outlaws left that hotel with huge grins. We mounted and began to ride away, feeling very chipper. That was until we realised what had happened while we were being attended to.

Jack felt around in his coat and drew to a sudden halt.

“Those bloody thieves!”

We asked him what was wrong.

“Those light-fingered needlewomen have pinched my valise!”

Immediately we all checked ourselves and realised that we too had been picked clean. The ladies had lifted our valuables while they serviced us! Needless to say, we doubled back post haste.

When we reached the hotel the place was shuttered and barred. No lights were to be seen within and no sounds to be heard. Evidently the women had anticipated our return. Jack and Tom dismounted and marched to the door with pistols drawn. They rapped on the door with their revolvers and demanded entry. When no reply came, Jack blasted the lock off the door, allowing them to burst through. Inside was black as pitch except for the glow of the coals in the fire place that were cooling.

Suddenly we heard the gallop of hooves behind the hotel, and Ben and I saw Madam Le Tigre and her maids riding away into the night, still in a state of undress. We dug the spurs in and chased them. Not only were the women riding at breakneck speed in their delicates, they were seated astride. No doubt they would have had far less capability if they had ridden sidesaddle as etiquette demanded.

We began to close on them and yelled out for them to stop. The women took no heed and continued to ride like devils. Suddenly we saw the bush growing thicker around us and heard the rushing of water. The river that fed the creek where the miners searched for gold was approaching, and recent rains had made it a wild torrent. Madam Le Tigre spurred on but her horse shied at the water’s edge and threw her off. The horses of the others did the same. Ben and I slowed, seeing no need to rush while these thieves were dazed on the ground.

As we encroached upon them, one of the prostitutes sprang to her feet. She was a lithe looking woman with long flaxen hair and round features. She jerked her thumb up at us and plowed into the surging waters. As she tried to get across, she lost her footing and was swept up. Knowing my horse would not maneuver well in such a tangled mess of undergrowth that skirted the water, I dismounted with the rope from my saddle and chased after her on foot, keeping her as much in my sights as I could.

As the water flushed her downstream she screamed. I made sure there was a decent loop on the end of my rope and hurled it at her. She managed to grab it and I began to haul her out of the water. As she lay on the shore, gasping for air, I bound her hands and feet to stop her getting away. She fussed and fought harder than any cow or sheep I had ever snagged, let me tell you.

“Let me go, you bloody so-and-so!”

Here she was, this defiant lady of the night, drenched through her underthings and rolling about in the mud. It was a form of justice as far as I was concerned. I simply hauled her over my shoulders like a poached deer and strode back to where Ben had the others covered. Tom and Jack had since joined us.

I planted the muddy woman next to her colleagues but noticed one of them was missing – Lucie. I raised this point with the others and they proceeded to let fly with all sorts of foul oaths and vulgarities. Rather than join in I mounted and rode in the direction of what I took to be the hoof prints of her horse.

It was not long before I reached a clearing and saw a distance away from me, at the foot of a hill, Lucie astride a bay mare waiting for her companions. When she saw it was I rather than the women she turned and galloped off. Even with one poor leg and one poor hand she could ride better than most able bodied men. Alas, for her, I had a superior mount and soon caught up to her old nag. I cut off her flight and she pulled up. Her expression was a mixture of disbelief, fear and regret.

“I’ll trouble you to come with me, Lefty,” I said.

“Why should I trust you?” Lucie replied.

“Because if I wanted to shoot you I could have done so many times over before I caught you. We don’t want trouble; we only want our belongings restored to us.”

Sheepishly, Lucie complied. As we rode back slowly I took the opportunity to speak with her, hoping for an apology at the least.

“It was a devilish, underhanded thing you did to me. Did I ever do you harm or insult?” I asked.

“No, you did not. I am sorry to have done you injury. You shan’t do harm to us?”

I shook my head at such a preposterous proposition.

“We may speak harshly in our rage, but I would never allow any of the men in my company to harm a hair on the head of a woman. Especially one as sweet as you.”

Yes, indeed, as furious as I was at the skullduggery, I could not help but remain sweet on Lucie. I could not bring myself to believe she could have willingly done such a treacherous thing and I told her as much.

“I could say much the same about you, Mr. Hinch. You were gentle as a lamb with me, and I cannot perceive that you are half the brute they paint you as in the papers.”

I joked that perhaps if other bushrangers were as light-fingered and sneaky as Madam Le Tigre and her girls, there should be far more gold escorts peacefully lightened of their loads and far fewer policemen with bullet holes in them. I wondered to myself that I should not simply steal Lucie away with us, for the more I shared her company, the more I wished to do so. I decided I ought to be content with having robbed an escort of its valuables, and leave behind with Madam Le Tigre a far more precious treasure. Yet, if Lucie had asked to join us I would certainly have agreed without hesitation.

Once we got the women back to the hotel, we gave them a right dressing down. Madam Le Tigre informed us that she knew exactly who we were as soon as we walked in, based on the descriptions of us in the papers. She figured that we could afford the loss given that the money was not ours in the first place. Jack said it weren’t her place to make that judgement. He started ranting as was his way.

“Stealing from us when our backs is turned makes you no better than us! You should be ashamed,” he said. The muddy girl piped up.

“Us ashamed? Given what you had me doing earlier I don’t think you’ve got much of a leg to stand on, old boy!”

Well, that put him in his place. We agreed to release the women and negotiate. You see, Ben was big on negotiation. He’d say it’s what all the good generals and military types do – diplomacy, they call it – though he’d deserted the army almost as soon as he was pressed into it, so his understanding of tactics was probably questionable. We talked the ladies around and agreed to give them a portion of our takings each, so long as they kept quiet about us and kept the traps off our tails. Madam Le Tigre readily agreed to the terms, the others followed suit.

With that we continued our journey, hoping to find a dock where we could buy or bluff our way onto a ship. Unfortunately, things did not exactly work out the way we intended, but that is a story for another time.

I should add that it was the following day that I was poking around in my coat pocket for my pocket knife, when I found something I had not put there. I plucked the object out and found it was a white handkerchief, embroidered with flowers. I opened it and saw that there was a mark on the cloth where Lucie, with painted lips, had kissed it. I supposed that she had planted it there while she was fetching my clothes in. Through all the scrapes we’ve been through, I always kept that close. It reminds me of better times.

© Aidan J. F. Phelan, 2021