Elizabeth Daleiden_e-book

Here are the first two chapters of Elizabeth Daleiden on Trial. If you wish to sample more, please visit the online bookstores where Elizabeth Daleiden on Trial is available for purchase.

Chapter One

Elizabeth Daleiden had to know, better than anybody else, what happened the night Henry and Titus died in the fire that destroyed their house. They were her nearest neighbors. They’d left her their farm, too.

Jonah Neumeyer felt he had no alternative but to go back to Revere to pay her a visit. He’d always imagined he’d start with Elizabeth.

He showed up at her farm at the time they’d agreed upon, which was two o’clock in the afternoon on the first Saturday in April 1977. It also happened to be the day Jonah turned twenty-eight.

After parking his car in her driveway, he walked to her back door, which was the door to her kitchen, and knocked. That was what farmers in Revere Township in Concord County in northern Illinois did when they visited one another.

He hadn’t seen her for almost ten years, not since he graduated from high school and left Revere. As soon as she opened her door, he was pleased to see she was still, in her midforties, the Elizabeth Daleiden of his boyhood.

Five feet ten inches tall, the same as Jonah, she did the outdoor farmwork men did. Despite that strike against her, many of Jonah’s male classmates in high school had agreed they’d gladly sacrifice one of their balls to end a date with her in the backseat of their car.

Without hesitating, she embraced Jonah, and he gladly returned her hug.

Unlike his classmates, he’d always wished she were his mother.

Releasing Jonah, but still holding his hands, Elizabeth looked him up and down.

As he did her.

They both wore plain white tee shirts, faded Levis and scuffed gym shoes. They both had light-brown hair with only a suggestion of a wave in it. They both had it cut too short for the times. He was without facial hair. She was without makeup.

Their eyes meeting again, they laughed.

Elizabeth spoke first. “I heard you did well in college and law school. You must’ve, to be where you are now.”

Jonah worked for one of the largest firms in Chicago. They’d hired him out of law school three years ago. Less than six months later, the group of lawyers handling matters for the firm’s bank client asked him to work full time with them. He promptly, happily accepted their offer. It put him on a certain path to a partnership—if he behaved himself.

Elizabeth offered him a seat at her kitchen table and asked if he’d like coffee.

“Yes, thank you,” he replied, sitting down. “Black, please.”

“That’s the way I like it, too. As black as Concord County topsoil.”

After handing him a cup on a saucer, she sat down at the table with her own.

Jonah told her he was “awfully saddened” when he learned her husband died the day after last Christmas.

“Daniel was in a great deal of pain,” Elizabeth said. “The doctors told us there was nothing more they could do. The cancer had spread throughout his body.”

“I heard that. I’m very sorry. I have to confess, when I was growing up out here, I admired Daniel Daleiden. Maybe your being his wife had a lot to do with that.”

Elizabeth smiled. “You were the boy who fired your grandmother’s hired man.”

Jonah smiled back. “I was that boy.”

Elizabeth wasn’t about to stop there. “How old were you when you did that?”

“Thirteen.”

“People said you told your grandmother you’d do the hired man’s work yourself, and she wouldn’t have to pay you.”

Jonah knew how he was remembered in Revere. He was the strange boy who not only fired his grandmother’s hired man and did the work himself. He also cared for his grandmother during what the neighbors referred to as her “declining years,” while he was in high school.

His teachers readily excused him from classes on days he called to explain he had farmwork to do or his grandmother had taken a turn for the worse. They knew he was telling the truth. They also knew he’d rather be in school, arguing with them and his classmates about whatever it was they were attempting to teach and learn that day. He likewise knew his teachers were telling the truth when they said they’d miss him.

“Something happened when I was six years old,” Jonah said, “and it’s bothered me ever since. I think you’re probably the one person in the world who can help me understand what I saw and heard that night.”

Without taking her eyes off Jonah’s, Elizabeth nodded.

“Henry and Titus and the fire,” she said.

Without taking his eyes off Elizabeth’s, Jonah also nodded.

“That night,” he said.

*****

One December evening in 1955, which the weatherman on television had correctly predicted would be “bitterly cold,” Jonah and his grandmother watched a fire consume a farmhouse down the road from theirs. Two elderly men, Henry and Titus, lived in it. They’d claimed to be brothers.

“I still dream about it,” Jonah told Elizabeth. “And it’s just as frightening in my dreams now as it was when it happened.”

“I remember you were there with your grandmother. I was worried about you and what you saw. Children shouldn’t see such things. I can understand why you’d still dream about it.”

“I wish I’d come to speak with you about this earlier,” Jonah said. “I can only admit I’ve lacked the courage to do it—to find out the truth.”

The volunteer firemen from Revere and two neighboring townships arrived in their ancient fire trucks and struggled with freezing hoses. Elizabeth and her husband Daniel, both twenty-three, were two of the youngest firemen. The fire burnt most of the house to the ground. It also burnt “beyond recognition,” as the Oxford Times reported, the two men who lived there.

The firemen and deputy sheriffs covered the men’s bodies with tarpaulins before they brought them out on stretchers.

“Who set fire to their house?” Jonah asked Elizabeth. “Do you know?”

“The sheriff and the coroner said it must’ve been an accident. I’m certain that’s what it was. Henry was eighty-five. Titus was seventy-five. They were in poor health.”

“Did you know they weren’t brothers?” Jonah asked.

Elizabeth glanced at Jonah’s left hand. He wasn’t wearing a ring. She probably would’ve heard about it if he had any reason to be wearing one.

“I knew they weren’t brothers,” she said. “Hassenauer was Henry’s last name. They told people that was Titus’s last name, too, but it wasn’t. His was Peltz. They got away with it for a long time. I knew what they were doing.”

“Do you know why they passed themselves off as brothers?” Jonah asked.

“I think you know why they did that.”

“I can only guess,” Jonah said. “But my guess is they didn’t want people to know they were gay.”

Elizabeth smiled. “I never heard them use that word to describe themselves. I would’ve remembered it if I had. But if that’s what you wish to call them now, then that’s what they were—two gay men living together, sleeping in the same bed. I was often in their house.”

Jonah hadn’t expected Elizabeth to go that far.

Jonah pointed at a kitchen window facing west.

“Wasn’t that their barn?”

“Yes, it was. We still use it.”

“And their house was about halfway between their barn and the road?”

“Yes.”

“So it wasn’t far from where we’re sitting now,” Jonah said. “You and Daniel might’ve seen people sneaking into it to set it on fire.”

Elizabeth emptied her cup and placed it on the saucer in front of her.

“Daniel and I undoubtedly would’ve seen people entering the house the night it burned,” she said. “We could see both their back and front doors from all our west-facing windows. They had their porch lights on. They always did when it was dark. But we didn’t see anybody sneak into their house that night. We didn’t see anybody near the house until the fire started. The fire was what the officials said it was: a dreadful accident.”

“Didn’t that house have windows on its other side, facing west?”

“Yes, of course. Several windows.”

“What if the intruder, or intruders, knew the men? They would’ve also known you and Daniel could see both of their doors. Wouldn’t they choose to sneak into the house through a window on the west side of it?”

Elizabeth stared at Jonah.

“Nobody sneaked into their house that night,” she said. “Not through any of their doors or windows.”

“Were you in the house when the fire started?”

“No, of course not. As soon as we saw it, Daniel and I ran over there and tried to put it out ourselves. Just the two of us, though, couldn’t make a difference.”

“But if you weren’t in the house when the fire started, how do you know intruders didn’t set it? How can you be certain of such a thing?”

“I know what you want me to tell you, Jonah. You want me to say people from around here paid Henry and Titus a visit after they learned the men weren’t really brothers. And that visit—or ‘intrusion,’ as you might call it—led to the fire and the deaths of Henry and Titus.”

“I’ll never forget,” Jonah said, “what I heard one man say when the firemen and deputies brought out their bodies: ‘Those two old queers got what they deserved.’ Then he asked: ‘Who do we thank for setting their house on fire?’”

Elizabeth winced. “Daniel and I heard the horrible things some of the people said that night, after they knew Henry and Titus were dead. But their remarks don’t mean anybody actually set the fire. I’m certain it was an accident and nothing else. Maybe it was an accident those nasty people welcomed, but they didn’t set it.”

“I don’t know how you can be so sure no intruder, or intruders, set the fire. You said the people around here had just found out Henry and Titus weren’t brothers.”

Elizabeth chose to remain silent.

“No,” Jonah pushed on, “the two old men weren’t brothers after all. I heard what people were saying that night. Henry and Titus had turned out to be ‘faggots.’”

Elizabeth cringed.

“I’m sorry,” Jonah said.

Elizabeth shook her head. “No. You have no reason to be sorry. That was a word some ignorant people used to describe Henry and Titus.”

Jonah remained silent.

Elizabeth had the prominent cheekbones, nose and chin of Nefertiti, a face that might’ve seemed gaunt and unforgiving were it not for the lips Daniel must’ve found bliss to meet with his.

“I hope you understand something,” she said. “I would’ve gone over there and saved Henry and Titus myself. I would’ve shielded them from the people you think attacked them. Nobody would’ve dared touch them. Those two men were my dearest friends. I loved them. Everybody knew that. You knew that.”

“I did,” Jonah said. “And that’s why I had to come to talk with you.”

“And I’m glad you did,” Elizabeth said. “I can see why you might believe a crowd of loudmouths murdered Henry and Titus. But I can guarantee you nothing like that happened.”

*****

As Jonah said good-by to Elizabeth at her back door later that afternoon, he pointed toward a sunlit field across the blacktop road that ran past her house.

Somebody dressed like them in a white tee shirt and Levi’s was driving a tractor pulling a manure spreader over the previous year’s corn stalks, preparing the field for planting.

“Your son?” Jonah asked.

“Yes,” Elizabeth replied. “That’s Eli.”

Eli had the front-end loader attached to the tractor. He’d used that back at the barn to dig into the hog manure and straw bedding and dump the mixture into the spreader. He’d probably also wielded a pitchfork to load what the machine missed.

Jonah could see Elizabeth and Eli were farming the same way he and his grandmother had farmed in the Fifties and Sixties.

“He’s eighteen now,” Elizabeth said. “He’s still in high school, but he’ll graduate next month. He reminds me of you. He enjoys working. Farmwork, schoolwork, any kind of work. Whatever he does, he keeps at it until it’s done.”

She looked across the field at Eli, Jonah thought, as if she were an adoring Mary in a medieval painting.

Chapter Two

The next Thursday afternoon Jonah received a telephone call at work from a person who told the receptionist she was “Olivia Daleiden, the late Daniel Daleiden’s mother.” Olivia wished to speak with Jonah in person.

He agreed to meet her after work that day at his place.

*****

Jonah owned a two-flat in Lincoln Park. He’d bought it run-down and cheap when he went to work for the law firm in 1974. He paid a contractor to fix it up.

Frank Kerrigan was the man Jonah shared a dormitory room with at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana during most of college and all of law school. Frank became his second-floor tenant. Jonah lived in the first-floor apartment. They both tended the backyard garden, attempting to outdo one another with their roses, lilies and phlox.

Frank’s grades in law school weren’t as good as Jonah’s. He went to work for a small firm in the Loop collecting debts. Some of their classmates who worked in legal assistance offices representing people who couldn’t afford lawyers chided Frank for “working for the bad guys.” Those were the companies that financed the purchase of useless used cars, shoddy home repairs and worthless trade school diplomas.

“And that huge goddamned bank client you spend so many hours toiling away for,” Frank liked to remind Jonah, “profits from the loans it makes to the bad guys I represent.”

Frank also told Jonah he thought Elizabeth was lying.

“But why?” Jonah asked. “She knew those men were gay. She said she’d lay down her life for them. Nobody would dare attack them. You should’ve heard her go on.”

Frank touched his gin gimlet glass to his lower lip.

“She’s hiding something,” he said.

*****

“You live here alone?” Olivia Daleiden asked Jonah after she took a seat on his couch and accepted a glass of his white wine.

“I live here alone,” Jonah replied.

“I’ll come right to the point, Mr. Neumeyer. My church held a birthday celebration for me on Sunday. I turned seventy-five the day before.”

Jonah wasn’t ready to tell Olivia they shared a birthday. He remembered who she was in Revere—the bank teller’s wife, Daniel Daleiden’s mother—but he couldn’t recall previously speaking with her.

Olivia was like Elizabeth in one respect. She was still remarkably slender. Her heavy makeup, though, made her face look unreal, like a mannequin’s. Jonah wondered if she thought it concealed her age.

“I suppose I should consider myself lucky,” Olivia continued. “My one grandchild was brave enough to show up for the celebration.”

“Eli?”

“Yes, Eli. I assume he did it because I’m his only living grandparent and he felt it was his duty. I’m quite certain he didn’t do it because he feels any love for me. It’s been a long time now since Elizabeth turned him against his paternal grandmother.”

“Elizabeth didn’t attend your party?”

Olivia scoffed. “Of course not. It was at St. Mary’s, the Catholic church in Oxford.”

Jonah remembered that, too. Daniel’s family was Roman Catholic.

“In any event,” Olivia continued, “Eli was telling the other guests that you’d paid his mother a visit the day before.”

Jonah also recalled the rather modest house in Revere where the Daleidens lived. Daniel’s father worked at the Revere State Bank for most of his life. Jonah had heard he died within a month after he retired at sixty-five. Like Eli, Daniel was an only child.

“Eli said you went to see his mother to talk about that awful fire.”

“That was my purpose.”

“He says you think a mob set the house on fire. After they found out the two old men weren’t brothers.”

Jonah set his wine glass down on the coffee table between him and his visitor.

“I don’t have any doubt about it,” he said. “It’s obvious that’s what happened.”

“Does Elizabeth agree with you? Does she believe whoever murdered those old men should be brought to justice at long last?”

“No, she doesn’t. She insists their deaths were an accident. She told me whenever it was as cold as it was that night, Henry and Titus burned wood in their living room fireplace. They didn’t believe in spending money to buy a screen for protection from stray sparks. One must’ve popped out from the burning logs and started the fire that consumed the house. And the two men, who were elderly and ill, couldn’t extinguish it before it got out of hand.”

Olivia set her glass down on the coffee table.

“That’s what Elizabeth says? That’s the nonsense she talks?”

“I admit I don’t understand what Elizabeth told me,” Jonah said. “She insists only Henry and Titus were in the house when the fire started. But how could she know that if she wasn’t there herself? She says, though, she wasn’t.”

“Mr. Neumeyer,” Olivia said, “I know you’re a big-city lawyer in a prestigious firm. But I don’t think you see two things you ought to see.”

“Two things I ought to see?” Jonah asked.

“Elizabeth’s two lies.”

Jonah remained silent.

“Believe me, she’s quite capable of telling them.”

Olivia smiled at Jonah. She could tell her blunt remarks had surprised him.

“Her first lie,” she continued, “is her insisting those two old men weren’t murdered. She knows that isn’t true.”

Jonah thought Olivia, picking up her glass again, looked rather pleased with herself.

“What’s Elizabeth’s second lie?” he asked.

Olivia was prepared for the question.

“Her saying she wasn’t present in the house when the fire started.”

*****

Elizabeth Daleiden’s farm consisted of 320 acres, two quarter-sections lying side by side. A creek in a shallow valley ran through them both west to east, its water headed for the Fox, Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

She’d inherited the east quarter-section from her father, Jacob Reifert. He died in 1950 a few days before she graduated from Revere High School.

She and her classmate Daniel Daleiden had informed their parents they wished to marry that summer. Olivia and Daniel’s father, as well as Elizabeth’s father, refused to consent to the marriage. At eighteen, Elizabeth could marry without parental consent, but Daniel couldn’t.

Elizabeth and Daniel therefore decided to live together unmarried. Three years from then, when they were twenty-one and Daniel no longer required parental consent, they’d marry.

Jacob Reifert left no will. Elizabeth took ownership of his 160-acre farm under the Illinois inheritance law. She was his only child. Her mother, his only spouse, had died when Elizabeth was five years old.

Daniel moved into Elizabeth’s house the day they graduated from high school. They seemed not to care that, by living together as husband and wife without a legal marriage, they created what people told Jonah, growing up, was “one of the biggest scandals Revere has ever seen.” And, his informants would add, their community had “more than its share” of those.

Elizabeth became the owner of the west quarter-section when Henry and Titus died the night of the fire in 1955. They’d made her a joint owner of their farm with what the legal papers referred to as the “right of survivorship.”

Elizabeth deeded their farm to herself and her husband, Daniel. She’d done the same thing with her father’s farm after she inherited it.

*****

In the fall of the year Jonah turned fourteen, after firing his grandmother’s hired man and taking responsibility for her farm, he found himself in trouble. The forecasters were predicting a heavy rain that would turn to snow. Jonah didn’t have nearly enough time to finish picking the corn before the rain was supposed to begin.

Mach schneller,” his grandmother told him in German. He had to hurry up.

Driving past the Neumeyer farm on their way home from grocery shopping in the town of Revere early one morning, Elizabeth and Daniel could see, just by looking at the fields, the predicament Jonah was in.

They drove their corn picker and two wagons to the Neumeyer farm that same morning. They assured Jonah they’d already finished their own corn harvest. They’d left Eli with a responsible neighbor who’d taken care of him before.

Elizabeth and Daniel spent two days helping Jonah pick the last of his grandmother’s corn before the November storm began. The three of them worked so hard they had little time for conversation, but Elizabeth and Daniel did tell Jonah they admired him for firing his grandmother’s hired man. If he needed any other help, all he had to do was call them.

Jonah knew only Elizabeth and Daniel kept him from losing most of his grandmother’s corn that frightful autumn in 1963. But he promised himself they’d never have to do it again. What had he ever done to merit the astonishing kindness of Elizabeth and Daniel Daleiden?