The day I met the Churchills, I was curled up half asleep on a muddy riverbank along with four or five other strays. We had all been captured by a smelly man and tied to a scrawny sweetgum tree several yards from the Mississippi. He was selling us to emigrant families gathering in St. Louis, waiting for the spring thaw before heading out on the Western Trails.
“Look, that man has those poor dogs tied up,” I heard a young girl say. “Why would he do that?”
I picked up my head to see three kids standing at the top of the bank. There was a boy about fifteen years old, a girl slightly younger, maybe twelve or thirteen, and a little girl who was probably about six. The boy wore brown overalls, a white shirt, and a cloth jacket. The two girls both wore prairie dresses down to their ankles and thickly knitted sweaters. The kids looked clean, except for their muddy shoes and the mud on the boy’s cuffs and the bottom of the girls’ dresses. They appeared a lot cleaner than ‘Smelly,’ as I called him, who was filthy-dirty and probably smelled worse than any of us dogs.
“Hey Mister, what are you doing with those dogs?” the boy asked.
The man answered with a question of his own, “You folks heading out west?”
“Yes sir,” the little girl responded before her brother shushed her. He appeared suspicious of Smelly and wasn’t sure if they should even be talking to him.
As Smelly turned to climb the hill toward them, the boy stepped in front of his sisters and said in a loud, clear voice, “Yes sir, we’re heading out west this spring – as soon as the trail dries out.” I could tell Smelly might have said more, but he was having trouble climbing the hill and appeared to be short of breath.
When Smelly finally reached the top of the riverbank, he stopped just a few feet from the boy. I could see the girls take a slight step back as he approached them, probably due as much to the man’s disagreeable breath as his dirty clothes. “Oregon Trail or the California Trail?” he asked, wheezing for breath.
The older girl stepped forward to show that she wasn’t afraid of the stranger. Standing beside her brother, she said clearly, “We’re going to Oregon. We’re heading out on the Oregon Trail with our parents this spring.”
“Well then,” Smelly said as he slapped his hands together. “You’re going to need a dog. A good strong dog. A dog that can keep you safe on the trail out west.” The kids just stared at him. So, he added, “Every wagon needs a good dog. A dog for protection, a dog for hunting, a dog for scouting the trail out ahead of you.”
By this time, I had walked up the hill toward the kids as far as the rope around my neck would allow. The little girl wasn’t looking at Smelly; she was looking at me, and seeing the smile on her face, I instinctively started wagging my tail. As the older two kids had not yet responded to the man, he glanced down at the little girl. Seeing her smiling, he turned and realized I was heading up the hill to meet them.
“You like that one?” he asked the little girl. She didn’t answer, but he could tell she was interested. I was interested too. I hated being tied to that tree, and to be honest, I didn’t trust old Smelly any more than the kids did. Sensing that he might have just sold me, he rushed back down the hill and untied the end of the rope from the tree. He then scrambled up the muddy bank so that the kids could pet me, and I could get an up-close smell of them.
All three kids immediately started patting me, and I gave each of them a good long sniff, plus a few quick licks. “So, this is the one,” Smelly said. “It looks like you got yourselves a dog.”
“How much?” the boy asked.
“Two-bits,” the man said firmly, but with a smile.
“Two-bits,” the older girl exclaimed. “That’s a lot of money for a dog.”
“Look,” Smelly said in sort of a gruff voice. “Every wagon needs a dog. And it’s right apparent that you like this dog, and this dog likes you. So, two-bits is a good deal. A good deal for a good scouting dog.”
The boy dug into his pocket and pulled out three dull silver coins. Holding the coins in his hand, he offered them to the man. “Here’s fifteen cents Mister,” the boy said. “It’s all I’ve got.”
“I said two-bits boy,” Smelly said, eyeing the coins. “This is a good dog, and you’re getting a good deal at two-bits.”
The boy turned to the older girl and nodded like he wanted her to say something. When she didn’t respond, he quietly said, “Sarah, give me a dime.”
She just looked at him before saying. “Josh, Papa said we could buy candy. He didn’t say anything about buying a dog.”
In a low voice, speaking as if he thought she was the only one who could hear him, he said, “Sarah, two-bits worth of candy won’t last us a month – but a dog is – well, a dog is a dog, and as the man says, we’ll need a good dog on the trail.”
Sarah reluctantly reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out a small cloth draw-string purse. Carefully untying it, she reached inside and drew out a small, thin, shiny silver coin. She handed it to Josh, who handed all four coins to the man. “Here,” he said. “Two-bits.”
“You got yourself a good dog boy,” Smelly said as he gleefully stuffed the coins in the pocket of his muddy pants. Turning toward the girls, he said, “Ladies,” as he politely nodded. He then handed the rope to Josh before turning and heading back down the bank to the dogs still tied to the sweetgum tree.
I had new owners – actually, the first owners I’ve ever had, and I was excited. I’d always been a stray, along with most of the other dogs in St. Louis – begging for scraps, foraging through trash, and sleeping whenever and wherever I wanted. I’d never had a family before, but I liked these kids, so I was excited about whatever adventure may lie ahead.
“Do you think Papa will be mad?” the little girl asked as the four of us turned away from the riverfront, the only home I’d ever known, and walked together up the city street into my new life.
“I don’t know,” Josh said. “But we will need a dog,” he said confidently, trying to justify their purchase.
“Can we still stop and buy candy?” the little girl asked.
“Oh no Molly,” Sarah quickly responded. “I think we have already spent way too much today. And I don’t think we have to worry about Papa. I think Papa will be fine. I’m much more worried about Mama. For two-bits, she could have bought enough fabric to make both of us a new dress. Besides, a dog is just one more mouth to feed.”
Hey, “another mouth to feed,” I sure like the sound of that, I thought; no more foraging or begging for scraps. And with that, I picked up my pace and trotted two steps ahead of Josh, excited about the prospects of a new, comfortable home.
About six blocks from the river, we came to a large two-story frame house. The house was painted white, with a white picket fence across the front. Though the paint was somewhat worn and probably could have used a fresh coat, the house was clean and neat. “Hannibal Boarding House,” Molly loudly proclaimed as she ran her hand across the painted sign nailed to the gate. Mrs. Hannibal was the owner of the boarding house where my new family lived as they waited for the spring thaw. I remembered looking for hand-outs at this house before, but the woman who lived there always ran me off with my tail between my legs and an empty belly.
Josh opened the gate, and as we stepped up onto the porch, the front door suddenly flung open. There, obstructing our way, was a short, stocky woman with gray hair, wearing a well-worn apron, and holding a large broom in her hand. Before any of the kids could say a single word, she blocked the doorway and said in a harsh voice, “You’ll not be bringing that filthy dog into this house.”
“Scout isn’t filthy,” Molly immediately protested.
Hey, I have a name – “Scout” – I like that! I’ve never been called anything other than “beat-it” or “scram,” and now I have a real name. I beamed with pride at the thought of finally having a family, and at that moment, I promised myself I would be the best dog any family could ever have.
As the girls sat on the porch to scrape the mud from their shoes, Josh led me around back to the stable. The stable wasn’t as nice as the house, but it was dry and at least a little bit warmer than being outside. Josh made me a bed of hay and an old saddle blanket and brought me a pail of water. He did keep me tied-up with the rope, as I guess he was trying to protect his investment, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I trusted these kids even though I had to share the stable with a couple of horses and one rather old milk cow. Despite my new roommates, it was still much better than wandering the streets of St. Louis, never knowing where my next meal might come from.
I have no idea how Josh, Sarah, and Molly explained me to their parents. I’m sure Mrs. Hannibal couldn’t wait to tell them that the kids had “drug” me home at the end of a rope. In any event, it must have gone okay, for shortly after dark, Josh and Sarah came out to the stable with a plate of beans and a nice ham bone. The bone still had some good meat on it, and I happily gnawed on it all night.
The next morning, all three kids raced to the stable as soon as they were dressed to check on me. Mrs. Hannibal had already been out to the stable to milk her old cow, and she didn’t even give me a glance. But my new owners were delighted to see me. They hugged and patted me, and little Molly brought me a big piece of bread that had been soaked in bacon grease on one side. Josh took the rope from around my neck, and all four of us headed out down the muddy street toward the center of town.
The air was crisp and cold, but the sky was blue, and my belly was full for the first time in – I don’t remember when. We walked about three blocks to a dry goods store, and as the three kids went inside, I lay down on the wooden sidewalk to wait. It was just a matter of minutes before they came back out, Molly with a small bag of candy and Josh with a red leather collar. He sat down next to me and placed the collar around my neck. It was the first time I had ever worn a collar in my life. Again, I felt very proud.
Back at Mrs. Hannibal’s boarding house, Josh took my collar off, and with a nail he had pulled from an old board in the stable, he scratched “Scout Churchill” in the red leather. “Scout Churchill,” he proudly proclaimed as he put the collar back around my neck.
It was now official – I’d been adopted by the Churchills, and I was one happy dog. I couldn’t wait to head out on the Oregon Trail and prove to the entire Churchill family that I was the best two-bit investment they had ever made!