From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
When a motion picture was made in the late 1940s of Quantrill's burning of Lawrence, the researchers said they never found out who the woman was who warned Lawrence of Quantrill's approach.
Her name was Sarah Cook, and she lived just across the Kansas river from Linwood, Kas. Eris Goff, a free-lance writer living at Linwood, talked some years ago with Sarah Cook's daughter, Mrs. W. E. Meinke (Emma Cook), who lived in Linwood. "I have set the facts down as Mrs. Meinke told them to me," Mrs. Goff writes, "and used my imagination to weave them together."
The dimly-lighted cabin of William Cook stood in a clearing about 12 miles east of Lawrence, Kas. It was a moonlight night in August, 1863, and all was quiet except for sounds of insects and songs of whippoorwills. A hole in the door through which a gun barrel could be thrust was mute evidence of the cabin's isolation and lurking dangers.
A child watched from one of the windows for her mother who had gone after dusk to milk the cows down in the timber. On its north bank was a settlement called Johnny Cake, later named Linwood, which consisted of a store and a few dwellings.
Emma was afraid and wished her father and her brother were home. They were with the 12th Kansas Infantry, one of the volunteer organizations. She heard the sound of approaching horses. Then the metallic click of hoofs on stone announced they had drawn up in front of the cabin.
From her milk stool in the timber, Sarah Cook saw many forms silhouetted in the moonlight. A heavily bearded man approached her.
"Do you have anything to eat?" he demanded.
"Yes," she replied, controlling her fear.
"Then go and fix something," he ordered. "There are 40 of us."
Sarah picked up her milk pail and went into the house. Carefully she strained the milk.
Emma's older sister, Aida, took her by the hand and led her to the loft where the girls slept.
Four of the men came into the house.
"How far is it to Lawrence?" asked one of them.
"Well, I don't know exactly," answered Sarah.
"We want to reach Lawrence before dawn, and we want someone to show us the shortest road," the man continued, just as Jimmy Dawson appeared at the door. Jimmy, 16 years old, was helping with the harvest on the 160-acre farm.
"Boy, as soon as supper is over you'll show us the way to Lawrence," the renegade said.
"I-I can't. Our horses are loaned out," the boy faltered.
"We'll furnish you a horse, and you're going. Understand?" he snapped.
"But, Sir, I can't leave the women alone! There are hostile Indians around!" protested the boy.
"Take your choice. Either you go or we'll kill you!" the leader shouted. "And if you're smart, you'll go without trouble."
Sarah was busy frying side mat and eggs and whipping up a large part of their winter store of corn meal for the Johnny cakes. It was well past 11 o'clock. She had learned from snatches of conversation that these men were part of the Quantrill gang.
While the men were eating, she called Jimmy aside.
"Take them south to Lawrence by way of Blue Jacket ford and Black Jack!" she whispered. "Take my pony and hide him in the hazel brush north of the cabin!"
The route she mentioned was miles out of their way. She would ride her pony straight through by Eudora and try to arouse the town before Quantrill and his men arrived.
Fearing she would be killed if they discovered her in Lawrence, she asked Jimmy to fire four times when the raiders reached the edge of town. This would give her a chance to escape by swimming her horse across the Kansas river to the north bank.
Jimmy left with the band near midnight, heading south, and Sarah, as soon as they were out of sight, mounted her horse and sped toward Eudora, then followed the dark shore of the river.
Clouds drifting across the face of the moon made it seem as though some ghostly hand carried a lamp, moving from room to room. A feverish dread that she would not be in time haunted Sarah.
It was still dark when she galloped out of the trees into the clearing at the edge of Lawrence. She raced from house to house, shouting a warning. Some disregarded her, but she soon saw men rushing about trying to find hiding places under porches and in cisterns.
The morning stillness was shattered by four shots and she raced on down the block and turned north toward the river and the shelter of the trees. She dismounted to search the shore for a safe crossing free of quicksand. But when she started to cross, the pony sank knee deep in sand. Grasping an overhanging branch, she managed, somehow, to work him out.
Finally she was in the river. She guided the pony with the current until a low bank loomed on the opposite shore. She emerged, and heard the distant gunfire and yells which shattered the morning stillness.
The pony was tired. The forest was damp, dark, and cool, and the wind on her wet clothing chilled her. She finally found the dim trail that followed the river, snaking its way eastward until it reached a point near Johnny Cake. This was as good a place as any to cross to the south bank, so she gathered up the reins and braced herself for the plunge. The water seemed to tear at her with a thousand arms.
Her horse scrambled up the slippery bank and found the path that led through the dense woods to her cabin. She could almost relax among these woods she loved. She had just escaped being killed! Her bones felt like jelly and her heart was heavy, for she had seen smoke twisting into the sky over Lawrence.
When she went to bed and finally to sleep, she could still see the flame against the sky like the flares of sinking ship.