IV. December 13, 1862

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Sniffles and incoherent words join the thumping of feet as we race through the woods. These children have come so far, and I refuse to let their brave journey end when freedom is so close. I keep my eyes wide, searching for a place where we can all hide from our pursuer. But we are too large of a group and time is running out.

"Rylan!"

I don't stop pushing the children forward.

"Rylan, wait!"

Galloping hooves draw closer and my cloak lifts from my back before a hand wraps around my upper arm. The rider pulls his horse to a stop, and I struggle to get free.

"It's me. Stop."

I glance up at the man mounted on the saddle and meet unforgettable blue eyes. "Sage?" I holler for the children to stop before turning back to the only familiar face I've seen since I leaped back into time. "What? How did you..."

"Bounty hunters are heading this way, and you still have three miles to the border. You have to hurry," he says, looking in the direction he came from.

I examine him, narrowing my eyes. "How do you know? Are you one of them?"

He tilts his head to the side. "They think I am, but I'm not...I'm on your side. I'm going to lead them the wrong way, but it's a big group so don't stop running. I'll meet you at the border after you pass the children on to the next conductor."

Taking a deep breath, I nod. "Sage, what is going on? Why is this happening to us?"

Shrugging, he says, "I'm as clueless as you are, Rylan. I promise, we can try to figure it out together, but you have to get these kids to safety first."

"Okay. Please don't leave me," I whisper, a pleading tone creeping into my voice.

His eyes connect with mine and I can feel his sincerity when he says, "I promise I will be at the border to meet you."

With a final nod, I turn back to the children. "All right, little friends, we have to run, and we have to run fast. We are almost there, but we can't take any more breaks, okay?"

They give a unified "Yes, Miss Rylan," and their adolescent features reflect their resolve.

I stay behind them, keeping the slower children in sight as we dodge low-hanging branches and jump over fallen trees. The small boy who has been by my side throughout the night loses his footing on some slick moss and falls to his hands and knees. I scoop him into my arms and he clings to my torso while I continue to run.

"This way," says a man with a deep Southern drawl.

The hunters yell for us to stop, promising they will lessen our punishment if we do. But their lies fall upon deaf ears, and we sprint forward.

We break free of the trees and into an open field—exposed. I no longer keep down my voice, screaming at the children to run. Off in the distance, the small figure of a horsed rider gallops across the field. He motions for the children to follow him, and his voice is muffled in the brisk night breeze. I don't need to hear him to know it is Sage here to help.

I relax a bit and my tired legs slow their pace. "We are almost there, buddy," I say to the boy in my arms.

I expect him to show some relief, but I'm met with his shrill screams. A hand claps down on my back, pushing me forward, and the boy tumbles from my arms as I land face first in the dry grass.

"Miss Rylan," he cries, scrambling for me, but comes up short when he is lifted by the back of his shirt.

A beefy man in a gray coat holds the boy away from his body like he is a repulsive animal. The man's shaggy beard parts as he grits his teeth, fighting to keep ahold of the squirming child. He looks down at me in disgust and opens his mouth, but I stop him, saying, "I'll do anything; just let him go."

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