The Stars that Fell

By: M.L. Bullock

Prologue


Mobile, Alabama, 1851

Hoyt Page never wanted to become a physician, but his family’s good name required him to take up a respectable occupation. Since he loathed the prospect of a lifetime of military service or the pretense of local politics, medicine appeared his only option. To his and his family’s surprise, he excelled at his craft.

Generally, Hoyt did not care to engage people in conversation unless the topic touched on a subject he held an interest in, like astronomy or pedigree horses. Too many times, he stood awkwardly through sessions of idle chitchat only to excuse himself before he made the unforgivable mistake of yawning. However, people in pain—that was quite another story. Those he could speak with all day, listening to their list of symptoms, offering comfort and wisdom. Hoyt found he had a mile-wide streak of compassion for the sick and infirm. He himself was a healthy man and had been a healthy child, but his concern for the sick was real and nothing he intentionally cultivated. Hoyt was committed to his work and did not mind the midnight calls, the long rides and the bone-aching weariness. Even those terrifying moments when he left a home feeling powerless to heal—yes, even in those moments, he knew he was walking in his unique purpose.

Just like tonight. He left Seven Sisters with his stiff black hat in his hands, his bag feeling unusually heavy. Every step he took away from the mansion brought him both relief and extreme regret. Jeremiah Cottonwood was an evil, reprehensible man, probably the angriest man Hoyt had ever known. Even Hoyt’s father’s temperament could not compare to Cottonwood’s. The man married Christine Beaumont, the most beautiful woman in the state, but had that satisfied the arrogant bastard? Had her wealth and quiet beauty calmed his rambunctious spirit? No, of course not. Jeremiah Cottonwood had used her with hopes of getting a son—the son he needed to maintain control of his wife’s extraordinary wealth. Hoyt’s own cynicism surprised him. He shuddered and stoked the fire, which had died hours ago in his absence.

How many times had Hoyt visited the sheriff to voice his concerns over the treatment of Christine and her daughter Calpurnia? At least four now, but nothing had changed. What could he do? With a grimace, he recalled the conversation he’d just had with the sheriff of Mobile.

“Come now, Dr. Page. You should leave the gossip to the ladies. It’s not seemly for a man in your position to engage in this kind of speculation,” Sheriff Rice had said as his deputy and oldest son had snickered and leaned back on his dirty boot heels. Hoyt had cast a glance at the deputy over his shoulder but continued undaunted, determined to help Christine. “Do you have any proof that Mr. Cottonwood has abused either of them?” the sheriff had asked.

“What kind of proof do you need, sir? I know starvation when I see it. The girl is nothing but skin and bones, and her skin is sallow—both obvious signs of starvation. Her mother can’t even speak—she’s catatonic, unable to do anything by herself. Something is going on in that house.”

“Did they complain to you, doctor?”

“No,” Hoyt had said with a surge of desperation, “but I want it on record as the family’s physician that I made a formal complaint. I cannot sit idly by while the man starves his daughter to death. God only knows what Christine—Mrs. Cottonwood—has had to endure. Have you ever known me to gossip about a patient or any family that I have cared for? Won’t you at least investigate what I am reporting?”

“Surely you understand how sensitive this type of matter is, Dr. Page.” Rice had stroked his greasy black beard like it was his favorite cat. His dark eyes were steady and fierce; they seemed to bore into Hoyt’s soul. Hoyt had been unnerved that he couldn’t read him.

“I am not asking you to arrest anyone. Just investigate. Please, sheriff. I would consider this a personal favor.” Hoyt understood what that meant. The next time another fool deputy shot his toe or another one of Rice’s relatives developed syphilis, Hoyt would offer his care for free—until Rice said otherwise. No matter. It is worth it if it helps Christine!

Sheriff Rice’s wooden chair had squeaked as he’d sprung to his feet and offered Hoyt his hand. Hoyt had shook it tentatively and thanked him. “If it will ease your mind, Dr. Page, I will do it. If I see any cause to intervene, I will. You have my word.”

With a nod, Hoyt had left the office, hoping to make it home before the rain began to fall. That was earlier that evening—it was now near midnight. It was a fortunate thing that the sheriff had been in his office. He had felt hopeful at first, but it hadn’t lasted.

Knowing the sheriff’s character, it was doubtful that Christine, Calpurnia and now the new baby would receive any help at all. He sat at his writing desk, wondering to whom he should write—who would help him? There was a judge, Judge Klein, who used to serve as a circuit judge. But what influence would he have here now? He sighed again and reached for the small cedar box hidden in the secret drawer of his desk. Not even his sister knew of his personal treasure trove.

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