More and more as we went on, we talked of Fort Laramie, the halfway station on the trail, a place where repairs could be made or needed supplies purchased. Here, too, Chris and Tom were to leave us and we were to go on unaided, just our family in three wagons.
So many tales we had heard of the Fort, the haven it had been to the pioneers, and the protection it now offered the emigrants, that we awaited eagerly this break in our travel. It never occurred to us to call ourselves pioneers; too many had been over that trail before; too deeply was it worn.
When at last we drove up to the Fort, we gazed about with interest. People, people, and more people! It seemed to me like the crowds we had seen in the cities left behind. Soldiers swarmed about, looking each train over, perhaps to see a friend; emigrants were preparing busily for further travel; traders bustled about their business, and Indians and more Indians, all a weaving mass of seeming confusion.
Part of our train left us there and we never saw them again. Many took the California Trail, which branched off at that point. Among these were Chris and Tom. Though so many left us, an equal number joined us and we went on with our train little changed in size.
Most of the men went into the Fort, and I wished that I were a boy so that I might have gone with Father and Winfield. It was very interesting, though, to watch the people while we waited for them to return. We were to stay but a few hours, for we were, as ever, anxious to press on.
While we were eating our lunch, we children almost too busy watching to crowds to eat, I saw a wonderfully dressed Indian coming toward us, followed by a squad of warriors. His face looked familiar.
"Haven't we seen him before?" I asked, nodding toward the Indian.
Win looked at him for a moment. "He's the one who ate all our lunch that day," he said. "What a change!"
We stared at him in amazement. Instead of the dirty trousers and greasy shirt, here was a brilliantly clad Sioux Chief. His creamy-white buckskin suit was ornamented with beads, porcupine quills and fringe. His feather headdress reached to his heels. He was the finest specimen of a well-clad Indian I ever saw.
When he saw that we were eating, he very courteously stopped and with the other Indians, evidently his staff, waited until we were through.
As we arose from our meal, he came up to us saying, "How, how," and smiling in such a friendly way that I could not help liking him. I surely liked his clothes. The buckskin was so white; the beads glittered so brightly, and that wonderful headdress! A Sioux Chief's regalia is truly magnificent.
He shook hands with Father and Mother and Winfield and me, then with each of the little boys. Carrie was standing on the wagon tongue putting away some things. She did not like Indians and did not want to shake his hand. She knew he was waiting and she worked and worked and would not turn around. Patiently he stood there, dignified and friendly-looking, and the line of keen-eyed warriors looked us over and over as if they meant to remember us. At last Carrie knew that he would stay there until she turned, so she sprang down from the wagon tongue and took his hand.
"Other papoose? Little girl?" he asked.
Father remembered that Florence had been with us that other morning, so he pointed to where she was with her family.
He walked over, magnificent Chief that he was, followed by his staff, and to the wide-eyed amazement of the Acker family, the rest of whom he ignored entirely, he strode up to Florence and said, "How, little girl." He shook her hand with great formality and politeness, the keen-eyed warriors looking at her as they had looked at us.
He came back and said to Father, "Want fresh meat?"
Father said, "Yes."
"Go one day." He pointed to the road. "Before sunrise, go one mile to the right." He pointed to show the direction. "Three gullies meet. Big spring. Elk drink - daylight. Go. Kill elk." He talked partly by signs, partly in English and partly in a dialect that Father knew.
After a few minutes he very politely left us followed by the other Indians. Very impressive they looked as they stalked away.
"Entertaining royalty, this time," Win said. "What does it mean?"
"It might mean a good deal," said a soldier who had been standing by looking on with interest "That Sioux Chief is the biggest man in these parts, head of the whole Sioux nation. If they should go on the war path, you might have a worse man for a friend."
When father was preparing to follow the Chief's directions and go for the elk, he met with violent opposition from the other men. "I tell you he is just trying to get you where he can kill you. It won't do. It isn't safe to go."
"No," Father said, "that Indian won't injure me. He was playing straight."
"You'll never get back," he was told.
"Yes, I will, and be pretty apt to bring some meat with me, too."
With the men still objecting, almost compelling him to stay, Father left the camp. He followed the Indian's directions and at sunrise was hidden in a beautiful spot overlooking a big spring where, as he had been told, three little grassy valleys united. Many animals, antelope, deer and other creatures were stealing down to the watering place.
Finally a drove of elk appeared. Father selected a large one, aimed and fired. The animal fell, a bullet through its heart. Before he could reload his gun, all the other animals had fled.
When he came back to the camp there was no difficulty in getting men to go with him for the meat. The Indian had kept faith and they were no longer afraid.
An elk is a big animal, but we had very little of that one. There were too many people whose need was greater than ours.