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  • Published: 2 January 2019
  • ISBN: 9780143792062
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $32.99

Half Moon Lake


Chapter One

The three boys bounded through the grass towards the forest, a spray of panicky hoppers glimmering around them, while John Henry recited the passage from Scouting for Boys that approved the adventure. He nodded when he reached the end.

Mary fixed her eyes on the children, one arm raised to block the late-morning sun. ‘They’ve never gone so far on their own.’

‘George wants responsibility.’ John Henry smiled at his wife. ‘We should encourage him.’

‘Seven’s no age for responsibility, John.’ Nor, she thought, old enough to shepherd a six- and a four-year-old, neither of whom could walk unsupervised to their bedroom at night without veering off to investigate some amusing distraction. An insect, a thud. But she bit her tongue for fear the Scouts had something to say about that, too.

Mary watched her boys slow their pace and enter the forest, lifting their hands and knees as though wading into cold sea. In a blink they were gone, indistinguishable from the dark mess of pine trees, discarded branches and spiky undergrowth.

The Davenport family stayed at Half Moon Lake in July. Their Louisiana lake house was smaller than their home in Opelousas, but still impressive: two storeys, pale blue, with slate-grey shutters, white trim, a wide porch and a balcony off the main bedroom. The house sat five hundred yards from the lake, which was fringed on three sides by forest, at the top of a clearing, providing the Davenports a dress circle view and unimpeded access to the water. Here, Mary woke to birdsong and the smell of fresh-baked ginger cake, and later played piano while the drawing-room curtains swelled on the breeze. John Henry took breakfast with his wife, read the St. Landry Clarion, the Atlantic Monthly, Outdoor Life, the latest Picayune, then worked on plans to further expand his business. The Davenport boys – George, Paul and Sonny – watched by Nanny Nelly, spent their days playing cowboys and Indians, chasing dun-coloured rabbits, and kicking a ball to one another. In the afternoons, John Henry instructed them in an aspect of Scoutcraft.

This summer day was muggy, but oak trees surrounding the house offered enough shade that John Henry, Mary and their guests, Ira and Gladys Heaton and Gladys’s mother Mrs Billingham, would sit outside, as John Henry preferred.

‘Perhaps air will ease my headaches. Now that my daughter has declared my homeopathics quackery, I’m left to suffer without relief.’ Mrs Billingham fanned herself.

‘You know the pastilles help. There’s no reason to resist every modernity.’ Gladys turned to Mary. ‘Eucalyptus and cocaine. They work wonders.’

‘Without any relief at all.’

As the group enjoyed their sweet tea, bees harvested nearby crepe myrtle trees, and hummingbirds flew from foxgloves to hollyhocks in search of nectar.

The Davenport boys had joined the adults for a while that morning, squatting near the woodpile with their toy soldiers – unobserved, Nanny Nelly having been permitted a rare afternoon and evening off to visit her mother – until they’d grown restless and begged to go exploring.

‘In search of what?’ Mrs Billingham asked.

‘Life’s compass,’ John Henry replied.

The men discussed business: John Henry’s furniture manufacturing company had sold a thousand chairs in the past eighteen months, and Ira Heaton’s stationery company had secured a significant government contract. Gladys chattered about millinery, bemoaned her rust-red hair, envied Mary’s glossy blackness. Mary worried about the boys. She feigned interest when Gladys, holding up an open copy of the Delineator, said, ‘Here’s the ribbon I mean,’ and offered a sympathetic murmur when Mrs Billingham confided that the pastilles made her pulse race.

When she went indoors, ostensibly to check with Cook that she’d remembered Mrs Billingham’s aversion to pepper, Mary shared her concern with her housekeeper, Esmeralda. ‘What if the boys meet with fire ants, snakes, alligators!’

Esmeralda folded her hands over her dusting cloth. ‘Mr Davenport’s taught them how to behave in the outdoors. They won’t come to harm.’

‘There’s no behaviour that fends off an alligator aside from firing a rifle,’ Mary said, though Esmeralda had, as always, calmed her.

At noon – as John Henry led Ira to the library to show him a recently acquired map of Peru, the women strolled in the garden, and John Henry’s butler, Mason, pulled on his boots to go fetch the boys – George and Paul Davenport walked up the hill without their brother.

Mary stopped by the rose bushes. Gladys and Mrs Billingham followed suit.

‘George,’ Mary said. ‘Where’s Sonny?’

‘We thought maybe he’d be here.’

‘Why would you think that?’ Mrs Billingham asked.

‘We looked every other place. Shouted and whistled.’

‘He’s no good at hiding. Except this time. Dropped Hop though.’ Paul held Sonny’s toy rabbit aloft by its threadbare arm.

‘I said we’d name him the winner. Only had to show himself,’ George said.

‘It’s true, he said that.’

‘Where is he, then?’ Mary’s voice quickened.

Behind her, Gladys placed her fingertips on her mother’s arm.

‘Don’t know.’ Paul shrugged.

Mary looked across the grassy expanse and glaring lake to the forest. Nothing moved. She grabbed Paul’s wrist and pushed George’s shoulder to turn him around. ‘Inside, now.’ She called for John Henry as she hurried the boys up the front steps.

Sonny wasn’t in the garden. He wasn’t in the thickets or on the rope swing or in the shed. And though John Henry and Ira scoured the forest and lake’s edge with Mason, they didn’t find the boy.

While the adults searched, George and Paul sat on the porch steps, forbidden by Mary from moving one inch.

‘He’s hiding to get us into trouble,’ Paul said to Esmeralda.

George waved a fly from his face. ‘You don’t know anything.’

‘I know I’m hungry.’

‘Hush, both of you.’ Esmeralda twisted a tie of her apron until it coiled. ‘Left your brother out there alone. Should be ashamed of yourselves.’

Mary circled the house, frantic, ran inside to hunt in closets, beneath beds and behind doors, a ring of blackened linen flapping about her ankles. When she knelt on the steps and shook George, demanding he tell her again every word Sonny had said, reducing the boy to tears, Mrs Billingham insisted Mary lie down.

Esmeralda served ham sandwiches and pastries, made a pot of coffee and, at Gladys’s instruction, added a generous dash of brandy for Mrs Davenport.

‘No, no, no,’ Mary said. ‘No.’

‘There’s no cause for alarm,’ Mrs Billingham counselled. ‘John Henry will find the child.’

But when she could, Mrs Billingham suggested that Ira drive into town to alert the sheriff.

‘The boy’s only been missing a few hours,’ Ira said. ‘He’s probably off frightening small creatures or digging a hole.’

‘Digging a hole? Is that what you think children do?’ Mrs Billingham stared meaningfully at the motor car.

Alone in the dark forest, his heart thundering, John Henry looked for signs of his son’s passage: crushed leaves, broken branches, blood.

Chapter Two

At six o’clock, Ira returned from Opelousas with Sheriff Sherman and three of his men. Everyone rushed out to meet the cars. In the overlapping introductions and activity – Cook being told to bring tea, Mason offering his assistance, the men adjusting dusty hats and clammy shirts, Esmeralda glaring at Paul to silence his cheep of ‘Mister, mister’ – the sheriff stood, straight-backed and speckless, as though in the eye of a storm.

John Henry stepped forward to shake the sheriff’s hand, noted his healthy solidity, glints of white in chestnut hair, the thoughtful narrowing of his eyes as he scanned the surroundings, the unforced kindness in his voice when he spoke to Mary.

‘My deputy’s coming with dogs. And we have a few hours’ light. We’ll find him.’ He pointed two of his men towards the woods and one to the house. ‘You’ve been to the resort?’ he asked John Henry.

‘Surely that’s too far?’

‘Not if he cut across the hill. I think it’s worth talking to them.’

Once his men had scattered and John Henry and Ira had driven off, the sheriff turned to George and Paul, who were still flanking Esmeralda. ‘Now,’ he said as he crouched down, ‘how about you tell me exactly what happened out there.’

The Starry Lake Resort was one mile east of the Davenports’ Half Moon home by road, but less, as the sheriff said, if Sonny had clambered over the hills. So John Henry and Ira sped down the shaded road, past cotton fields and rundown farmhouses, towards the resort. Where they’d usually comment on dimwitted landowners being stuck on old ways, the increasing number of cattle falling to disease or the frustration of managing Negro workers, they stayed silent.

The resort catered to the area’s wealthiest citizens. Membership was by invitation, referral or bequest. During the past year, the outside walls and columns had been painted and the cedar ceilings, marble mantles and Oriental carpets revived. Tennis courts were added. Local newspapers followed the progress of the renovation. Families picnicked outside the grounds, and the children of local lumbermen stared through the curlicued metal gates. The resort had reopened with fanfare in May, promising an elegant atmosphere reminiscent of the glory days of the South, before the war.

When the afternoons were dry and not too hot, wasp-waisted ladies wearing slippery silk and long strands of pearls ambled beneath magnolia trees, while men of influence stroked their whiskers and discussed the issues of the day: workers’ strikes in England, the trouble in the Balkans, Colonel Gracie’s new book The Truth About the Titanic, a second example – following The Truth About Chickamauga – of his talent for rendering thrilling events dreary (Gracie’s recent death noted then ignored). They discussed how to assist one another’s endeavours, too.

At night, when the wind blew the right way, birch trees shimmied music from the resort through the forest to the Davenport living room. Mary closed her eyes and listened, imagining dancing couples lit by crystal chandeliers, while John Henry stewed about the conversations taking place without him. Important people made important decisions at Starry Lake Resort. For too long, he’d dismissed the resort as inconsequential. But his friend Judge Roy insisted otherwise, and promised he’d nominate John Henry next month. John Henry had ambitious plans, and membership at the resort would be key to their success.

It had never been part of John Henry’s plans to stand on the dirt driveway and rattle those formidable gates in frustration, shouting out for entry to the resort to search for his son. Yet there he was. Ira Heaton pressed his car horn again, stopping at the sight of a dumpy man with a scowl plodding across the lawn towards them.

John Henry’s first encounter with the resort lacked dignity, but he hoped at least the gates would be opened for him. The man spat tobacco on the ground. ‘Members only.’

Speaking through the bars, John Henry told his story, describing Sonny, and making sure the man understood – if he didn’t already from John Henry and Ira’s appearance – that he was unaccustomed to being denied entry anywhere.

The man lifted one shoulder in a shrug. ‘I’ll keep an eye out. And ask in the kitchen and laundry who’s come and gone. We get a lot of deliveries. Could be someone offered him a ride.’

As John Henry walked back to the car, Ira stepped closer to the gate. ‘You understand that is the very opposite of reassurance?’

‘Wasn’t aware coddling strangers was part of my job.’

Word travelled that a boy had gone missing at Half Moon Lake, and people from surrounding towns, farms and even a docked showboat volunteered to help. They searched the chapel and school, asked around in local stores. In no time at all, a hundred men, glad of summer’s late light, were spread across the landscape, occasionally raising their hats to wipe their brows with kerchiefs, whacking sticks through the undergrowth, sending grass seeds and mosquitoes into the air. Some rode on twitchy horses, cradling shotguns. Snuffling hounds ran diagonals in front of them.

A beady-eyed tanner called Jackson Lane found small footprints beside the railway tracks, and the searchers swooped, like a flock of starlings, up the hill and into the drier woodland above the lake where the trains cut through. The sheriff told one of the younger searchers to run back to the house and fetch Sonny’s sandals. ‘Ask the housekeeper, not the mother. And mind your manners.’ When the boy returned, breathless and sweaty, the sheriff held the sandals next to the prints. The men craned into a circle and saw the prints were, yes, the right size.

Nobody could agree on why the prints petered out.

‘He’s been taken,’ Jackson said. ‘Lifted onto a train.’

‘Then why’s there no grown man’s footprints? You saying somebody strong enough to jes’ reach out and swoop him up from a moving train?’ one man asked.

‘Impossible,’ John Henry said.

‘There’s no train today,’ another chimed in.

‘Freight trains go slower,’ Jackson said.

The sheriff held one hand up to silence the men. ‘I’ve told you twice to back off. Y’all hard of hearing?’

John Henry exhaled loudly. Ignoring the sheriff’s instructions, the men had stomped around the prints, snapping twigs and squashing Indian grass, making and perhaps destroying leads. His own children knew better.

Sheriff Sherman asked his deputy to drive to the stationmaster’s house to get the schedule, but he was clearly sceptical of Jackson’s theory. ‘Even a beanpole like you couldn’t reach out that far from a train, no matter the speed.’

All through the night, searchers came into the house in waves, trudging up the hill under a starry sky with only a sliver of moon. The men smelled of whiskey, pine smoke and salty sweat, and lay down in the kitchen and dining room on make-do bedding brought in by the Ladies Aid. Esmeralda spread hessian sacks on the ground for the dogs. The symphony of snores – hound and human – croaking frogs, hooting owls, and music from the resort made the house thrum. The sounds carried to the Davenports’ bedroom, where John Henry slouched for a brief rest in a chair by the window and Mary wept and slept, shook then sat numb, clutching Sonny’s toy rabbit.

Down the hallway, George and Paul sat cross-legged on their beds in the dark.

‘He’s too chicken to be out at night,’ George said. ‘Unless he’s really lost, or you said something to make him stay there. Did you say something?’

‘Nothing bad,’ Paul whispered. ‘What’d you say?’

Half Moon Lake Kirsten Alexander

Inspired by a real case, Half Moon Lake is a captivating historical novel set in America's Deep South about a lost boy - and the two mothers who both seek to claim him.

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