With his other hand, he felt around in the backpack until his fingers closed over the handle of the boning knife, the sharp edge still wrapped in rags.
There was another sound, off to their right. Ignoring the shooting pain in his thigh, Nash got to his knees, pulling Skylar with him, and moved slowly around the trunk of the enormous fig tree, careful not to stumble over the spreading roots. He handed Skylar the bag and held the unwrapped knife down low at his waist.
She caught sight of the knife and shook her head vehemently. Nash didn’t want to do this, either. But if he got the chance, he would try and disable whoever was hunting them. The sound came again from higher up on the right flank. There was a flash of movement. It was only now that Nash realized all the birds and insects had gone quiet. He should learn to pay more attention to what was going on in nature. The birds had known before he did there was danger lurking in the bushes.
Following the sound of the huntsman’s footsteps, it seemed like he was heading away from their hiding place beneath the tree, continuing to stalk the line of the ravine downwards, not noticing that Skylar and Nash had left the safety of the culvert. If Nash could sneak up behind the man and disarm him, then this might all be over.
He put his lips close to Skylar’s ear. “You stay here.”
She shook her head again, strands of honey-blonde hair coming free of her messy ponytail. Real fear hovered in the depths of those crystal eyes.
“You have to trust me,” he whispered. He was a cop, trained for these sorts of situations. Admittedly, he was an injured cop with only a knife as a weapon, going up against a criminal armedwith a semiautomatic gun, but this was his job. It was his job to protect Skylar. To take down this gangster.
He was taking a risk by leaving Skylar completely unprotected, but it was a calculated risk. If he could take down the armed gunman, then she’d be safe. If he left the guy there to roam around freely, he might well sneak up on them and take them down next time. He had a chance to neutralize the gunman, and he had to take it.
“I’ll be back soon,” he promised, and then melted into the underbrush. Taking extra care not to make a sound, he headed on the same trajectory the gunman had taken, only slightly higher up the slope. Hoping to use his uphill position as an advantage. His leg hampered his movements, but the other guy must be going slow, as well, because Nash was gaining on him. Perhaps he’d realized his targets were no longer using the ravine. Sure enough, the man stopped up ahead. Using a eucalyptus tree as cover, Nash peered around the trunk. The gunman was now standing tall, craning his neck to see farther down the slope. Nash got his first good look at the guy. He was tall and muscular, dressed in long, dark, cargo pants, a black T-shirt, and combat boots. He wore a small backpack over his shoulders, a semi-automatic rifle held loosely pointed at the ground. Obviously well prepared. The man looked sharply to his right, and Nash saw his face was painted with ash and dirt. The termgun for hireflashed through Nash’s mind.This guy was a pro. Who the hell had hired this man to come and kill them? Nash was determined to find out.
The man surprised Nash by suddenly turning around to retrace his steps, obviously convinced that he’d lost the trail. Heading straight toward Nash’s hiding place. Nash stayed extremely still, hardly daring to breathe, not wanting to give himself away.
The man stalked like a black panther through the bush. Nash had to stop him before he backtracked too far. He couldn’t take the chance that the commando might find Skylar. He waited as the man got closer and closer, knife held tight in his fist. He was going to pass within mere feet of the tree Nash was hiding behind. Nash carefully and silently worked his way around the tree, keeping the trunk between him and the huntsman. How was he going to do this? Should he wait until the man had passed by and leap out and take him from behind? He’d have to make his strike accurate. There’d be no second chances against a man with a gun. The commando was directly opposite Nash’s tree now. He held his breath and tensed every muscle, hoping his leg wouldn’t let him down, his senses on full alert.
A tiny sound filtered through the bush to his ears. A scrape and then a thump. It was Skylar, she’d peeked around the side of the tree, perhaps trying to see where he was; see what was going on. Nash cursed inwardly.
There was no doubt the commando had heard it, too. The other man stopped in his tracks.
Why had Skylar been so silly as to reveal herself? He couldn’t see the gunman on the other side of the tree. So, he waited and listened, putting the knife between his teeth so both hands were free. The commando took one step in Skylar’s direction, bringing his face and the barrel of the gun into view as he raised it. And Nash decided that this was the distraction he needed.
Nash pounced. He grabbed the weapon and twisted it sideways and downward, using all his weight to drag both gun and man to the ground.
Caught completely by surprise, the commando didn’t react as quickly as he otherwise might’ve. That was probably the only reason Nash managed to orchestrate his maneuver, and both men rolled on the ground together.
The gunman let out a bellow of rage, trying to yank the gun free from Nash’s grasp. He knew he wouldn’t win a fair fight, not with his leg impeding him. He needed to keep this man on the ground, disable him as quickly as he could. Use the techniques he’d been taught on the job to wrestle this man into submission. The commando was on top, with Nash struggling on the ground. Letting go of the gun barrel with his right hand, he took the knife from between his teeth and plunged it down into the man’s shoulder.
The man’s bellow changed from rage to pain, and his grip loosened on the gun. That was the tiny slip Nash needed, and he wrenched the gun from the other man’s hands. But the rifle was long and unwieldy, and he still had the knife in one hand. Before he could swing it around into a position where he could point it at the commando, the other man brought both his hands up underneath Nash’s chin in a double-handed punch, sending the back of his head pounding into the dirt, and the gun skittering downhill through the dust, along with the knife.
Momentarily stunned, Nash shook his head to rid it of the bright lights flashing behind his eyes.
The commando was still on top of Nash, and he used Nash’s split second of weakness to try and flip him over onto his back. Neither of them had a weapon now, and it’d come down to sheer brute strength. The other man’s knee landed on the side of Nash’s wounded thigh, and he let out a scream of pain. His injury had let him down, and now it looked like he was going to lose this fight. The man had used his weakness and gained the upper hand.
“Run, Skylar,” Nash shouted. Even if he couldn’t win, he needed to keep this man occupied long enough for Skylar to get away.
The man now had one kneecap dug into Nash’s leg while holding Nash’s left arm, dragging it behind his back. His otherarm was practically useless, pinned beneath him on the ground. Nash drew in a deep breath. This was going to hurt. Instead of resisting the man’s grip on his left arm, he leaned into it, arching his back. Then he bucked like a bronco horse, using his uninjured leg to swing backward, rolling them both sideways.
Taken by surprise, the other man grunted but didn’t release his grip on Nash’s arm. For a second, Nash was on top, but they continued to roll, both of them groaning with exertion as they wrestled. Then the commando had Nash in a headlock and was squeezing his windpipe so he couldn’t breathe.
There was the sound of someone crashing through the underbrush nearby, and the commando lifted his head, easing his grip on Nash’s neck.
“Why, you little…” The man’s weight suddenly lifted off Nash, leaving him gasping on the ground. What the…?
Nash rolled over in time to see the commando racing toward where his gun had landed in the dust nearly ten meters away. But Skylar was also racing toward the gun. And she was closer.
“No,” Nash screamed. “No!”
FUCK. THE MAN had seen her. He’d let go of Nash and was running towards her. Skylar was closer to the gun, but by the time she picked it up and pointed it—hoping to hell it was loaded and primed—the man would be on top of her. Wrestle the gun off her and then she’d be dead, as would Nash.
So, she did the only other thing she could think of and kicked the gun away. It skittered through the leaves and debris over the ground, coming to rest close to the edge of the ravine. Which still left the knife, lying on the ground nearby, half-buried in the leaf litter. The gunman stopped his headlong rush and stared at her, as if he couldn’t quite believe what she’d just done.