Excerpt of Museum of Human Beings by Colin Sargent
(Page 4 of 7)
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"A great fish," Sergeant Gass said, drawing in
the dirt with his toe. "Large as this hole in the woods." He traced the edge of
their grassy swale with his musket.
"Not a fish," Clark said. "A great beast that
lives in the sea."
With a shake of his head, Clark waved her off.
Then he motioned to Gass. "I need a few men to go back with me to see this
whale," he said, dressing and seizing his notebook. "The rest of you wait
Still naked and barely covered by the corner of
Clark's blanket, Sacagawea stood up. "No. We will come to see the whale." She
dropped the blanket and clenched her fists.
Clark shrugged. "You can see it later. It is
nearly a day away."
She crossed her arms. "We will see it now. My
son will see the creature, and the great ocean, now."
"You will do what you are told." He started off
with his men.
"We will see the great whale."
She dressed quickly and drew the papoose onto
Baptiste could feel his mother's excitement as
her quick footsteps slashed in single-file through the forest, but in spite of
his best efforts to stay awake, the bouncing lulled him to sleep. He woke to
the sound of her hard breathing as she ran to the top of a hill. He heard
shouts and alarms from the men. Then the Pacific started spilling in, blue.
On the beach, Clark paced the mammal at 105
feet. Purple and distended like a huge rotting plum, the monster was an endless
galleon with clouds of gulls for sails. The great swollen corpse produced an
unfathomable stench, its melting flesh actually bubbling with the incessant
attentions of sand crabs. Far from alive, much of the behemoth was nothing so
much as a skeletal, open-air cathedral of gothic proportions that death was
building, the remnants of its tail drifting back and forth in the waves. As
Clark continued his necropsy, Sergeant Gass walked inside the mammoth rib cage.
Toussaint Charbonneau mumbled something in
French and made the sign of the cross.
"Look, I'm Jonah!" Gass called through the big
hoops of the carcass while the ocean splashed at his feet. The others headed
inside to see.
Baptiste, free from his mother, toddled to the
wall of flesh still hanging from the leviathan and plucked something sharp from
its side. He already had it to his mouth before Sacagawea could stop him.
"What have you got there, sonny?" Gass asked as
the child drew near, now holding it in his fist. "Let's have a look." It was
blue and sharp, a tiny spearpoint made of delicate, flinty stone. With its
ripping ridges, it was designed for killing birds, not whales.
"I'll be darned," Gass said, turning it over and
handing it back to Baptiste. "I wonder how many years the beast wore that
bauble in his flesh. Make a nice present for your da-da."
Baptiste wobbled straight through the troops,
waving the stone, and before Sacagawea could stop him, he held it up to Father
No one dared to laugh as Clark awkwardly
accepted the token and Sacagawea strode forward three steps before stopping.
Then, blushing and confused, she turned to Baptiste and slapped him hard.
The sting traveled across Baptiste's face, which
began to throb with pain. He was confused and inconsolable, even when his
mother wrapped him in her arms and kissed his head.
That night, as the fire turned to embers near
the shelter where Baptiste and his mother lay, Meriwether Lewis approached
Clark, who was absently turning the blue spearpoint in his hand.
"This has gone too far," Lewis said and
fidgeted. "I wouldn't cross Toussaint. Even drunk, he can relieve a buffalo of
its hide in three strokes."
"You know what she's done for us," Clark said.
"She is under my protection."
"I'm telling you as your commander, keep your
hands off her."
Excerpted from Museum of Human Beings
by Colin Sargent. Copyright © 2008 by Colin Sargent. Excerpted by
permission of McBooks Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.