Page 20 of Starlit Skies

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A cry of pain left her lips, and she clutched at her shoulder, but kept running. Good girl, only a few more steps. And she was underneath the tree canopy. He grabbed her hand and dragged her deeper into the underbrush, ignoring the pain lancing through his leg. The hail of ammunition followed them, but without a clear objective, the bullets went wide of the mark. He made her keep running, pushing her in front of him, down the hill and away from the crash site. Their progress was slow, more because of his leg than he’d like to admit, but once they were well into the forest, Nash found a fallen tree and they hunkered down behind it to catch their breath.

It was no use telling Skylar that she should’ve listened to him; that it was her fault they were now being targeted. The damage was done, and all they could do was hope the criminals didn’t take it into their heads to land the helicopter and come after them. He was thankful for his premonition that’d warnedhim to bring the backpack. If they needed to go on the run, at least they had a little food and water.

“Oh, God, Nash, I’m sorry—” He put his hand over her mouth and shook his head. They needed to listen. There’d be time for apologies later. Her eyes said that she understood. One hand was still holding onto her shoulder. Had she been shot? He needed to know that she wasn’t going to bleed to death, so without speaking, he motioned for her to turn around, gently pulling down her tank top, and then he sighed with relief. It was only a graze. A bullet must’ve clipped her, or perhaps a flying shard of rock. Either way, it wasn’t bad. He took her hand and squeezed it, letting her know without words that she’d be okay.

He could still hear the chopper circling above, perhaps trying to spot them through the trees. If they stayed still, maybe the criminals would leave again. They had to be taking a risk flying around like this, because the air would be full of rescue aircraft soon enough. They wouldn’t want to take the chance of drawing too much attention to themselves. Why had they come back? Nash pondered the question but could come up with no real answer. Perhaps they’d had to leave to avoid attracting the attention of a nearby rescue aircraft. Perhaps they’d been ordered back by whoever was running the outfit to make one-hundred-percent sure the targets were dead. Who knew?

The sound of the rotor blades changed slightly, and hope sparked through Nash. They were leaving.

But no, the tops of the trees began to shake in the down-draught, and as Nash peered up through the trees, he could make out the black shape of the helicopter touching down on the bare rock face in the clearing above. Then a figure slipped out of the aircraft, running fast and low toward the tree line.

“Fuck. We need to get out of here,” he said in a low voice.

She didn’t argue, but got to her feet, tugging him up by his hand. Which way should they go? He had no idea where theywere, or any notion of what this country was like. Right before they’d crashed, Paul had said they were flying over Lamb Range. They did seem to be at the top of some sort of ridgeline. Should they head downhill? That seemed to be the most logical path. Most people would flee directly away from the danger. But the last thing they should be was predictable. So, instead, he led Skylar on a bearing running parallel with the tree line above. Away from the crash site, but around the mountainside instead of down it.

They walked in silence, only the sound of their labored breathing to keep them company. Nash fought the urge to run. His leg wasn’t up to it, and a slow, steady pace would also allow them to hear if anyone was following.

This whole thing was one big clusterfuck. He wanted his gun, and he wanted his leg to be free of injury.

The light was fading fast. What were they going to do when it got dark? They couldn’t blunder around in the bush all night; it’d be madness. Especially with a gunman on their tail. The rescue search would be called off until first light, which would leave them to fend for themselves. He could no longer hear the black helicopter, which probably meant they’d walked farther than he thought. Or the chopper had gone, leaving the lone gunman to track them on foot.

“Where are we going?” Skylar whispered from behind.

“I don’t really know,” he admitted in a similarly hushed voice.

“Well, we can’t keep walking around here all night.”

“I realize that. But until we know whether that gunman is following us or not, my gut tells me we need to keep moving.” A line of shrubs reared up in front of them, and he had to force his way through. The thick branches resisted, almost pushing him backward. Anger at his impotence with the whole situation boiled over and he threw his whole body weight against thehedge-like shrubbery in frustration, until they gave way with a loud crack.

“Nash, wait…” Skylar grabbed for the back of his shirt, but she was too late. He tried to steady himself, but his injured leg wouldn’t take his weight, and he found himself sliding down a steep slope, covered in small gravel that acted like a bed of marbles. The drop was around twenty feet, and he landed heavily on his backside, jarring his wounded thigh. He let out a grunt of pain. What an idiot. He shouldn’t have let his temper get the better of him.

He could hear Skylar calling his name from up above. She needed to be quiet; they couldn’t afford to attract any attention. He was about to risk calling up to her, when he heard a scrabbling noise as Skylar descended, taking more care than he had, managing to stay on her feet, using her hands to steady herself when needed. She landed next to him; her face streaked with dirt and worry emanating from every pore.

“Oh, shit, are you hurt?”

“You mean, apart from my ego?” he asked with a grunt. “A few scratches maybe, but otherwise I’m fine.” He examined his hands, which had copped the worst of it, as he’d tried to slow his downward slide. They were dirty and scuffed, but didn’t seem to be too bad. He checked to make sure the backpack was over his shoulders.

Nash lifted his head to survey their surroundings. They were in some sort of narrow ravine. Perhaps a dry creek bed. The sides rose to around double his height, getting steeper, until they were almost a mini cliff as the ravine ran down the hill. He’d been lucky not to push through the shrubs farther downhill, the fall might have broken a bone or two.

The sound of a distant aircraft had them both craning their necks up.

“Is that…?” Skylar didn’t finish her sentence, because they heard another helicopter lifting off from their hillside above. That must be the guys with the semiautomatic. Perhaps search and rescue had come close enough to scare them off. It was a catch twenty-two. They needed to get back to the top of the ridge to wave down a chopper. But they dare not be spotted by the wrong one. Nash glimpsed the black chopper skimming over the treetops above them, navigation lights glinting in the encroaching darkness.

But Skylar’s eyes lit up as she watched the helicopter fly away. “Shall we head back to the clearing? They’re gone. Now’s our chance to try and signal.”

“No.” Nash shook his head. How did he put this, so he didn’t scare her? Her beautiful eyes widened at his refusal and in the end, there was no other way to say it. “What if the pilot took off and left the gunman behind? What if he’s lying in wait for us? Luring us into a trap?”

Skylar's cheeks turned pale. “Do you really think they’d do that?”

“They seemed pretty keen to see us dead,” he replied flatly. “Not only did they try to shoot down a helicopter containing a Queensland police officer, but for them to take the risk of coming back to the crash site…” That took some balls. And that kind of arrogance spoke of organized crime.

“Do you think it was you they were targeting, then?”

“It’s the most likely scenario,” he said with a grunt. Although, who would want him dead, Nash had no clue. Of course, he had enemies. What cop didn’t? But no one with this sort of ruthlessness, this kind of reckless abandon for the law. This was someone with connections. And money. Most of the two-bit criminals he’d helped put behind bars wouldn’t have the resources or the contacts to carry out something like this.

They should get moving before they lost all the light. Nash attempted to get to his feet, but pain so sharp it took his breath away speared through his leg, and he landed on his backside with a thump.

“Oh, no.” Skylar’s soft cry of fear made his stomach contract. All he wanted was to get them out of here; to get Skylar to safety. But his body was letting him down. He wasn’t sure how much farther he could go.