Cleveland, Ohio, 1899
The Lyceum Theater was quickly filling with people and excited chatter as friends met and were directed to their reserved seats. The gold in the Moorish theater decor was glowing in the gaslit atmosphere, giving those in the balcony a stunning view of the orchestra and the well-lit stage below. The rich, red velvet seats were soon fully occupied.
Amelia Ridell and her family were among the crowd filling the balcony awaiting the start of the play. Amelia and her sister, Bianca, were seated with their parents in the third row. The women were beautifully dressed for this night out; a touch which reflected their gentility and aristocratic breeding.
Amelia, at the age of twenty, was the eldest of the sisters. She presented a lovely figure in her green printed silk dress, which was nipped in at the waist with short puffy sleeves, as was the fashion. The green silk drew attention to her lovely green eyes and complemented her fair skin and blonde tresses. Her hair was coiffed in a chignon with soft curls encircling her face, giving her an almost framed appearance, as if she were an ethereal beauty trapped in a picture. The excitement of attending the theater gave rise to a rosy blush to her cheeks and her eyes shone.
Her younger sister Bianca, at sixteen, was experiencing one of her first forays into society. She was filled with anticipation and excitement to attend the play with her family. She wore a gown of lavender silk with a chiffon shirtwaist. The skirt of her evening gown fell in flounces with a velvet ribboned belt. The ensemble looked stunning on the young woman. She had her honey-brown hair pulled up into a chignon, with a matching velvet ribbon adorning her hat. Both young women wore gloves.
Bianca joked with her sister, the two giggling behind their programs, eliciting a sideways glance from their mother.
“Father, don’t you think Amelia should look in the crowd for a husband?” Bianca teased. Amelia stuck out her tongue from behind her program.
Their mother laughed as their father answered, “That’s not a terrible idea.”
“You see, Amelia?” Bianca chuckled. “The odds of you finding a good husband here are better than finding one in those newspaper ads you read.”
Amelia’s mother, Julia, looked at her thoughtfully as her husband, Robert, rolled his eyes.
“There’s no rush for you to marry, Amelia. I just spoke to my attorney about protecting our fortune today. I don’t want someone to marry you simply because you come from a wealthy family, thinking he can benefit from your fortune.”
Amelia was surprised and a little indignant. She leaned forward to get a good look at his face. “What exactly do you mean, Father?”
He replied, “It’s merely a safeguard. Should your mother and I succumb to malaria or influenza, having no male heir, and no living family, my attorney would hold my fortune in trust until you girls are of age, married, and can take possession of it.”
Amelia argued, “A stranger will hold our fortune? But Father, I am quite old enough, and I certainly don’t need to be married to be wealthy.” Her father considered her words for a moment, it caused him to shake his head at the naivete his eldest daughter exhibited.
“Daughter, need I remind you that the laws of our great State of Ohio require a male line of inheritance? When you marry, your husband will be the caretaker of your fortune. You must be married before you can inherit. There’s no need to argue. I’ve already signed the papers.”
Amelia flounced in her seat, clearly unsettled by the news.
Her mother reminded her, “Amelia dear, Mr. Bucher is our trusted attorney. He’s a longtime friend of your father’s. This arrangement is merely a safeguard against tragedy. It’s not as though your father and I plan to catch malaria anytime soon. We simply want to be assured that you girls inherit your birthright should anything untoward happen to us. Isn’t that right, dear?” Amelia’s father nodded.
Amelia knew that this wasn’t the time nor the place to discuss personal family matters, but she was also certain that she wasn’t going to simply let this matter lie. While she had grown up in a wealthy family and understood that she would eventually inherit a fortune from her father, she wasn’t as fond of the money, as she was the life that the money afforded them. Amelia and her mother both did a great deal of charity work in their city, through various organizations.
Amelia had a soft spot in her heart for orphans and needy children, of which there were many. She knew that, somehow, her inherited wealth would be someday put to good use. She felt worried that her father would entrust the task of managing their wealth to a lawyer, when Amelia felt perfectly capable of doing the job herself. She frowned at her father, not sure of what to say to him at that moment. She never got the chance to speak.
To diffuse the tension, Bianca announced that she needed to go to the powder room. Her father checked his watch.
“I’ll escort you, Bianca, but we must hurry. We don’t want to miss the opening scene.”
As they left the balcony, Amelia’s mother moved over into Bianca’s vacated seat so she could speak discreetly to her daughter.
“I honestly don’t see anything wrong with you searching the mail-order bride advertisements. If you wish to go west and leave Ohio, I will support you and speak to your father on your behalf. I only want you to be happy. You’re young, with your whole life ahead of you. I don’t want you to end up stuck in Cleveland if you are dreaming of being somewhere else.”
Amelia was touched and surprised by her mother’s words. “Thank you, Mama. I don’t really know what I want, but whatever it is, I don’t think it’s here in Cleveland.” Amelia didn’t want to fully commit to the idea. Although, she’d been pondering it for quite some time. She started to expand on her statement but thought better of it. They sat in silence until the rest of their party returned.
Amelia’s mother moved back to her original seat as Bianca swept in with a flurry of activity. She started to tell Amelia how she had seen two women, beautifully attired, in the ladies’ powder room and began to describe their gowns in minute detail, not aware that Amelia wasn’t really listening to her.
Bianca had become quite smitten with fashion of late. She read all the publications and the society pages of the newspaper when Amelia was perusing the personal ads.
Bianca’s debut into polite society earlier that year indicated the end of child-like ways, and gave the young woman the opportunity to have a new wardrobe of grown-up gowns fashioned for her. Bianca’s mother didn’t approve of all her youngest daughter’s dreams and wishes for new dresses. Some of the latest Parisian fashions were far too shamelessly low cut in the bodice to suit her vision for her young daughter.
Bianca argued and pleaded to no avail. Still, she ended up with a set of beautiful morning dresses, evening gowns and even sporting outfits. Bicycling was all the rage for young people, and Bianca was no exception. She often went cycling with friends and needed to be properly dressed.
The theater lights went dim a moment after they settled down, stopping Bianca in the middle of her story. “I’ll tell you at intermission,” Bianca whispered.
Amelia dismissed the conversations with her mother and sister from her mind as the stage was lit and the curtain opened. A hush fell over the theater as all eyes went to the center of the stage.
The Ridell family flowed out the theater doors with the crowd, turning toward the corner to await their carriage. Their driver had instructions to pick them up at precisely nine o’clock, and the theater had let out at twelve minutes to nine. So, they took their time wandering up the street, taking in the theater announcements for future performances. They dawdled in front of the store windows, dimly glowing by the gas-fueled streetlamps. The sisters chatted excitedly over the performance they’d seen while their parents walked arm in arm down the block.
“Mother, did you see Bianca? She was practically swooning over the romance!” Amelia teased. Bianca swatted at her sister with her program, denying the accusation.
Their mother, Julia, turned back to them. “I admit, I cried at the sad part, and I’ll suffer no teasing from either of you. I don’t blame you for swooning over that man, he cut such a dashing figure on the stage. Oh, his voice could make any woman swoon!”
The girls giggled as their father, Robert, joined the fun, protesting, “Here now! What about me? Am I not a dashing figure? Does my resonant voice not make you swoon?”
In response, Julia took his arm again and raising up, kissed him on the cheek. “Of course, my darling, I swoon over you daily.” Amelia and her sister exchanged smiles. It was clear how much her parents loved each other, and that made for a happy and harmonious home life for them all. They felt free to express themselves outside, beyond the peering eyes of their theater-going society friends.
However, that loving feeling would soon be shattered.
As they reached the intersection, three men stepped out of the side street in front of them. All three were dressed in black and had a menacing air about them. Robert pushed his wife behind him, and she pulled the girls with her.
“What’s this now?” Robert asked sternly.
“I’d like a word,” said the first man, the apparent the leader of the trio. “Got some business to discuss with you.”
“Well now,” Robert replied, “if it’s business, contact my secretary for an appointment. This is not the time nor the place for a business discussion.” Robert had turned his back to the wall and shoved the women behind him down the side street. He knew the men were up to no good.
“I’ll give you my money, anything you want, but please, leave my wife and daughters alone!” Robert beseeched them. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his billfold. He held it up, hoping the robbers would take it and go, but clearly, he was mistaken. He knew in his heart he was in for a fight.
He turned around to engage the men. The ringleader quickly snatched the billfold from his hands, saying nothing. Then, the two henchmen laid hands on him and tried to take him down. The larger man threw blows to Robert’s face and solar plexus. Robert doubled over, losing his breath and took a sharp uppercut to the face. The women could hear the crunch of bone as his nose and cheek were broken.
Amelia and her sister rushed into the street so they could see what was happening.
Bianca cried out, “Father! Stop it, you’re hurting him!” Just as her mother stepped forward to try to pull the men off.
Julia saw in an instant that the ringleader had a gun. She whirled and ran to the girls, grabbing and pushing them in front of her. “We have to get away!” she cried, “Run, go, quickly!” They turned to run as the gunshots rang out.
Amelia and Bianca were rooted to the spot in terror as they watched their parents murdered in cold blood. Robert fell first as the bullets hit his midsection at close range. He dropped like a stone. Julia took two shots to her body, and one to the back of her head as she tried to flee.
Amelia watched the violent scene unfold in slow motion. She heard Bianca’s scream as if from afar. All she could see was the gleam of the murderer’s gun in the dim light from the streetlamp. She was jolted back to reality in an instant as the gunman grabbed and pinned her arms behind her back forcing her down to her knees in the street.
She fought and screamed but was shocked into silent stillness when she felt the muzzle of the gun pressed against her right temple. She could not see her assailant standing behind her but saw Bianca in front of her in the same posture. The men were dressed in black with hats that obscured their faces.
Amelia thought, this must be the end.
She knew she would be killed so she screamed as loud as she could. “No! Let me go!” She looked over at her sister who was stock still with wide, tearful eyes, staring straight ahead. Terrified to move, lest she be shot.
Amelia felt like she had nothing to lose so she wailed and screamed. She looked up the street in hopes of finding a policeman, but instead, saw another man in the shadows, watching from across the avenue. He looked straight into Amelia’s eyes as a smile slowly crossed his face. She was suddenly aware she knew him, but was unsure how.
Amelia cried out again, then her voice was silenced by hearing the gun being cocked against her head.
Bianca sobbed out loud, “Why?” Her mind could simply not process everything that was happening in such rapid succession.
Just then, Amelia registered that others were coming toward her, to the place where her parents lay dead on the street. People were shouting and running their way, causing the gunmen to flee.
Amelia saw the man holding Bianca lower his gun, shouting, “Let’s get out of here!” They both took off running away from the advancing group of people. The third man sprinted off in the same direction as his cohorts, leaving the two girls kneeling on the dirt. Amelia looked back where she had seen the familiar man, but the street was empty. He was gone.
The men leading the crowd chased after the fleeing gunmen, while others stopped to witness the gruesome scene on the street. One kind soul spread his overcoat over Mrs. Ridell and arranged her skirts around her ankles. One of the men spoke up, “It’s the Ridells!” He was distressed to recognize them.
The Ridells’ driver, Jim, pulled up in the carriage precisely on time. He was shocked to see his employers lying deceased in the street. Shaken by the events, he stood by the pair of horses, unable to believe the scene in front of him. He asked one of the bystanders to call a policeman, just as he turned to see the sisters, Amelia and Bianca, rising to their feet.
Jim heard the shouts and whistles of policemen coming through the crowd, and when he turned back again, the sisters were gone. He was called upon to identify his employers to the police. Then, Jim was advised to remain at the scene until the police had taken the statements of the bystanders, and to await the undertaker. He kept searching the crowd for the two young women in vain; they had vanished from sight. Neither he, nor yet anyone else in the crowd, knew where they had gone.
The first person to reach the sisters was a woman. She helped the girls up and spoke to them urgently, “Come with me, quickly!” She prompted them to go. The two girls ran blindly through the darkened city, ducking down an alley, following the woman through the streets.
Neither sister could stem the flow of tears as they fled, still hardly able to believe that their parents were gone forever; and they were now orphans in grave danger, running terrified through the endless night.
Cody, Wyoming, 1899
The small kitchen table was stacked with papers. Sebastian Breen and his friend, Dayton Wilson, were seated opposite one another; each had a letter in his hands. The stack of letters had only been reduced by half since Dayton and Sebastian started reading through them.
Sebastian had already grown weary of perusing them and was about to put a halt to their activity when Dalton spoke up, “Here’s one, says she likes dogs. Might be a good match. You like dogs.” Dayton was only half joking and chuckled as Sebastian rolled his eyes in response.
“Doesn’t everybody like dogs? That’s no good reason to marry someone.”
Sebastian picked up another letter and read aloud, “‘I enjoy sewing and needlepoint. Am not fond of housekeeping. Hoping you can hire a maid.’”
Sebastian snorted in derision. “What? Does she think I’m made of money?” He shook his head.
Dayton replied, “Why in the world did you ever take out an ad for a bride, anyway, if you’re going to turn down every single woman who responds to you? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Sebastian took a drink from the glass of tea next to him, he raised his eyebrows as he regarded his friend over the rim of the glass. “You’re the one who talked me into this foolishness, Day. I never would have thought to do it myself.”
“You need a good woman to keep house for you and love you, Sebastian, like I have.” Dayton was happily married to his wife Seline, and wanted his friend to be as content as he was.
Sebastian poured more of the amber liquid in his friend’s glass then topped his off again, shaking his head.
“Do you even read these?” Dayton asked, figuring the answer would be negative.
“I do,” answered Sebastian. “What is it with you that you want to see me married off so badly?”
“It’s not just me and the wife who want to see you marry. I believe Miss Daisy asked you too, isn’t that right?” Dayton didn’t want to push, because he knew that Sebastian’s grief was still raw, and figured another woman’s affection would help to heal his heart.
Sebastian sat quietly for a moment, then answered, “Yes, I read them, but not one of them is worth choosing. I can’t say exactly, but they’re just wrong. I will know it if I get one that’s right. I’ll just know.”
“What’s wrong with them?” Dayton couldn’t figure out what his friend meant.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Sebastian answered. “But I’m sure I’ll know the right one. I just have to trust my gut. I can’t see myself marrying just anyone for the sake of being married. My mother and father loved each other very much. I can’t help but feel my mother, especially, would not approve of a mail order bride.” Sebastian hoped his friend would understand what he was trying to say.
“I’m not asking you to force love on anyone, Sebastian,” Dayton said.
Sebastian retorted, “It’s not going to be love, Dayton. I will have to settle for companionship. I’ve had about enough of this fruitless searching, and my eyes are getting mighty tired.” Sebastian rubbed his eyes and yawned to emphasize his weariness. He continued, “Shouldn’t you be moving along and getting back to your job? The town pays you to be Sheriff, not to sit around in my kitchen trying to marry me off to a stranger.” Sebastian laughed, but was only half-joking. “Don’t worry,” he sighed, “I’ll keep reading the letters. Just go on over to the jailhouse now, won’t you?”
Dayton joked back, “But if I don’t try to marry you off to an exotic mail order bride, who will?” They both laughed as Dayton grabbed his hat and coat and left through the kitchen door.
On his way back to work at the sheriff’s office, he pondered his friend’s situation. He wondered if Sebastian would recognize the right letter if he held it in his hands. Maybe he was just saying no because none of them are Daisy. That must be it, Dayton thought. He couldn’t think of any other reason why Sebastian kept rejecting the respondents to his advertisement.
He entered his office through the jailhouse door, using his key. He first checked to make sure that the inmates were secure inside their cells, then went into the front office and spoke to his deputy, Carl, who was working on a case file and guarding the four prisoners in the Sheriff’s custody.
“Howdy, anything new?” he asked. This was his standard greeting. Carl knew that the Sheriff was asking if any new cases or crimes had happened while he had been away. “Nothing new, Boss,” Carl replied.
“Good. You can go have your supper now if you like, Carl. I’m going to be in here doing paperwork for a while. I picked up a whole lot of mail at the Post Office earlier today. I’ve also got to work on those extradition papers for our friend Albert in the back, there. Seems he’s wanted in more than just Wyoming. He did a little breaking and entering, assaulted a man, and stole some goods in Montana, as well. They want him sent to stand trial there next month.”
“Thanks, Boss. I am pretty hungry,” Carl replied. “I’ll go down to Walt’s Diner. Want me to bring you back anything?” Carl shrugged on his coat awaiting Dayton’s answer.
“No, Seline will have my supper ready for me when I get home. I’ve got about an hour’s worth of work yet. Be back here at six-thirty, will you? Lucy will be coming over around seven with supper for the fellows in back. You’ll want to be here for that, now won’t you?” Dayton teased his deputy.
Carl blushed a little and shuffled his feet. He never knew how to respond to his employer when things got personal or when Dayton joked with him. It was Dayton Wilson’s way to disarm situations with humor. He was usually witty and funny, but Carl felt a little embarrassed that his employer knew all about him and his feelings for Lucy, the waitress at the diner.
Carl had always kept the Sheriff on a pedestal, having a great deal of respect for him. They were friendly, but Carl did his level best to be professional in his dealings with Dayton Wilson.
He grinned and nodded his head in answer to the Sheriff’s question. “Sure thing, Boss.” Carl barged out the front door of the sheriff’s office and headed down to the diner. Dayton knew Carl was more than just a little sweet on one of the gals that worked there, and he smiled to himself thinking that Carl was probably going to beat Sebastian to the altar at the rate they were going.
He reflected again on his friend Sebastian’s current predicament.
Surely, Sebastian must be able to find one worthy woman in that stack of replies to his advertisement!
There must have been more than twenty letters. Dayton himself had read at least ten. He chuckled thinking of the responses he’d read, and the ones Sebastian had turned down for some small reason or rejected out of hand.
He sets a high standard. How will he know the right letter if he sees it? Dayton hoped he would.
Dayton pushed the situation from his mind, picked up his mail and began sorting through it. The stack of papers on his desk needed all his attention just now. He had work to do, and it had nothing to do with Sebastian and the trouble he was having finding a suitable bride.
Amelia awoke in a strange bed, feeling as if she were dreaming. She looked over at her sister, Bianca, sleeping next to her. She had a fraction of a second of wondering where she was, then her mind was flooded with the reality that was far worse than any nightmare she could imagine.
The events of the previous night returned her to wakefulness. The tears and sobs returned before she could even think to breathe. The memory of each horrific second was indelibly etched in her heart.
She didn’t remember going to sleep, only she and Bianca holding each other tightly as they ran until she felt her lungs would burst. The kind woman had led them to safety, far away from where the murder had occurred. The sisters had stayed in the woman’s parlor, grieving, in shock, inconsolable, for a long while.
Amelia thought it must be the next morning but had no concept of time. At some point, the woman—Amelia couldn’t remember her name—suggested they go to the police, but Amelia didn’t feel comfortable doing that. She recalled again recognizing the man from across the street. She almost knew him and tried hard to focus on his face. She remembered the evil smile, but images of her father falling on the street kept clouding her memory. Who was he?
The sound of Amelia’s sobs caused Bianca to stir and awaken. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, then went through the same shocking moment of clarity that her sister had.
“Oh Amy!” she cried, “How did this happen? I can’t believe they’re gone.” Bianca began to sob anew. Amelia’s instinct to comfort and protect her younger sister surged, pushing aside her own grief. She wrapped her arms around Bianca and the two rocked together there until the tears began to subside.
There was a firm knock on the door.
“Come in,” Amelia answered. It was their savior, now hostess, that opened the door. She looked much the same as she had last night. A matronly, but fit-looking, woman of middle-age in a casual dress. Her hair was plaited into a long braid down her back. The once brunette tresses were interspersed with silver, and her brown eyes had the wrinkles of experience next to them.
“Breakfast is ready, girls. Please come down when you’re ready,” she said from the doorway, not wanting to interfere with their grief. She smiled sadly and added, “I’ve got fresh orange juice and some nice porridge waiting for you downstairs. There are dressing gowns in the closet just there.” The woman spoke with sympathy in her eyes. She stepped back into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
Amelia realized that she and Bianca were in their underclothes, their petticoats were draped on a chair, but there was no sign of the gowns they had worn last night. She knew that they must be covered in dirt and probably blood, and…
Her thoughts stopped and would go no further. She untangled herself from her sister and went to the closet. Sure enough, there were two dressing gowns hanging on the inside of the door.
“I don’t know what we’ll do about clothes later, but I think it’s all right to go to breakfast in these.” Bianca looked up as Amelia tossed the dressing gown on the bed next to her sister and tried on the second. It was a sheer blue fabric, but it concealed enough to preserve modesty.
Bianca rose and put on the other, and the two sisters made their way into the kitchen, noting that the grandmother clock in the hall was nearly ready to chime ten.
The kitchen was brightly lit with the morning sun’s rays pouring in from a large window over the sink. The woman had her back to the girls, stirring a pot on the stovetop as they entered. She turned with a reassuring smile and bade them sit at the table in the cozy breakfast nook, serving them orange juice.
“I’m so glad you girls finally got some rest. I hope you have an appetite. I figured porridge would be easy for breakfast. I always find it comforting.” The woman set down the bowls along with a sugar bowl and a pitcher of cream.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name. I’m sure my sister and I owe you our lives. I thank you for taking us in. I’ll get word to our housekeeper this morning and have her send our clothes and Jim to take us home.” Amelia looked over at her sister who was sitting stock still, almost catatonic. She had not touched her breakfast. “Bianca, did you hear that?” No response.
The woman pulled a chair close to Bianca’s. “I am Cordelia Armstaff. I live here alone. I am a widow. I was glad I could help last night. I think both of you must still be in shock.” Cordelia reached over and took Bianca’s hand, squeezing it. A tear ran down Bianca’s face, but she didn’t speak or attempt to wipe it away. “Poor dear,” Cordelia said, then directed her question to Amelia.
“Are you ready to talk about what happened? Last night you were nearly hysterical, the both of you. I am glad to see you got some rest.” Cordelia paused, not wanting to upset the girls. “What about going to the police?”
Amelia’s eyes widened as she thought about going to the police. For some reason, she didn’t feel like it would help. “I don’t think so. What I keep going back to is that man across the street. I know him! I can’t remember how, but I got the feeling that he was a part of the whole thing. Maybe he was the leader?” Amelia had scarcely gotten the words out when it struck her. She did know the man! It was their lawyer. It had to be him. Amelia gasped in shock at the realization. “Wilbur Bucher! He was the man in the shadows across the street. I recognized him from when he came to the house last year to see Father!” Bianca blinked, as if the name had broken through her haze.
“Oh, why would he…” Amelia trailed off because her heart had answered the question before it was finished being asked.
Bianca began to wail beside her. Cordelia took her in her arms.
“Why?” she cried. “He is supposed to be Father’s friend. Why would he do such an evil thing?”
Bianca dissolved into sobs, confused, but Amelia understood very well why Wilbur Bucher would have her parents killed. “Father had just signed over his fortune in the event of a tragedy,” she said bitterly.
Cordelia broke in, “We should go to the police.”
Amelia shook her head. “We don’t have any evidence. Besides, I think those men meant to kill us as well, but the crowd chased them off. It’s not safe for us to be seen. I know they must be looking to finish the job. What can we do against professional gunmen? That lawyer, Bucher, is connected with the police. We can’t trust anyone.” Her voice failed at the realization of their predicament.
“I know someone who might be able to help,” Cordelia brightened. “He protected my cousin. He’s a bounty hunter named Sebastian Breen. My cousin is living safely now because of his protection. He used to work as a hired gun.”
Amelia’s face lit up when Cordelia mentioned the man’s name. “I know that name. He had an advertisement in the personals for a mail-order bride!”
Bianca scoffed, “It can’t be the same man!”
Amelia had an idea. “We can’t hire that man. We have no money since the lawyer has our fortune, but what if I write him as a possible bride?” She continued, “If he was a husband, he’d be duty-bound to protect his wife.” Amelia was certain it would work.
“I’ll write to him today,” she announced.