Excerpt from Museum of Human Beings by Colin Sargent, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Museum of Human Beings

by Colin Sargent

Museum of Human Beings
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2008, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2009, 352 pages

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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."

"Beaver?"

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 here."

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 her back.

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 Clark.

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.

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