The sound of a man’s voice made Niki’s head whip around as she tried to bring Storm under control. The man was not speaking English and the insignia on his uniform did not belong to the United States military, nor did the uniform sport a maple leaf such as the one she had seen on the helicopter the previous day. Thoughts swirled through her head, making no sense at all, but the one thing she was certain of was that she was in deep trouble.
Niki reined Storm around, now surrounded by five more men. Her body went rigid as the horse’s legs suddenly stiffened. Storm snorted at the closest man and then pawed angrily at the ground. The men began advancing, smiling and laughing. Niki couldn’t understand what they were saying, but as she spied two more dead bodies on the ground, she felt certain they had no intention of helping her.
Her eyes darted from man to man. She scanned the area and noted that she was still very close to the edge of the ravine. Niki could feel the big horse quiver beneath her and tense, ready to spring at the slightest provocation. She gripped Storm’s sides with her legs and grasped the saddle horn. One man pulled a pistol out of its holster. She doubted he intended to shoot her yet—instant death would be too quick, easy and preferable. Niki feared he planned to take out her only mode of escape. She couldn’t allow her beloved horse to be shot at point blank range, but most importantly, she couldn’t be delayed too long or she doubted her grandfather would survive.
With a prayer and a swift kick, Niki informed Storm it was time to run for their lives. The horse sensed the danger and cleared the edge of the ravine before the men could react. Niki held on as tight as she could and leaned back to help the horse keep his balance as he lunged down the slope. Rocks dislodged under the fury of his churning hooves as he barreled down the embankment.
They had nearly reached the creek when the first series of shots rang out. Storm shied and turned to follow the creek downstream rather than plunging into the water with its slick bottom at an uncontrolled speed. Another barrage of gunfire pelted the ground, narrowly missing Niki, but hitting nearby rocks, spraying the horse with sharp stone fragments.
A slight bend in the ravine took them out of sight of the shooters and soon the slope was much less intimidating, making it easier for Storm to cross the creek and climb out of the ravine. Niki released a sigh of relief and encouraged the horse to take it easy as he began his ascent. They had just reached the top when Niki heard the unmistakable sound of two dirt bikes’ engines firing up.
“I hope you have a little more left,” she whispered as she leaned over Storm’s neck, flattening herself against his steaming body.
Her position was all the encouragement the horse needed. Storm stretched out to a full run. His speed and endurance amazed her, but she knew they needed to reach the cover of the thick forest on the other side of the clearing as quickly as possible. Storm had already been galloping for hours before they had even reached the tower, so she doubted he would be able to outrun the dirt bikes for long or dodge the bullets that would come once the soldiers reached the flat meadow.
Niki stole a glance back. The bikes had cleared the ravine’s lip and were rapidly closing in. She looked ahead and estimated they were still a quarter of a mile from a dense stand of trees. Several bullets landed well to the right of Niki, doing no damage, but the noise spurred another burst of speed from the gelding. She fought the urge to look back again—it would serve no purpose. Instead, she kept herself low and her head down to help Storm as much as possible and to minimize the size of target her body presented.
The distance between her and the trees narrowed, but the bikes sounded closer. Another shot narrowly missed as Storm dove into the thin stand of pine. The horse slowed slightly, having to navigate through an old blow-down as if it were an obstacle course. She knew the fallen trees would slow the dirt bikes even more since they would have no choice but to find an alternate route around the jumble of timber, resembling a giant game of pick-up-sticks.
Niki remained low to the horse’s neck as he wove in and out of trees, branches slapping violently, threatening to dislodge her from Storm’s back. He stumbled several times as he maneuvered through the erratically strewn timber, but regained his footing and continued to run. She clung to the horn, hoping the horse knew what he was doing, doubting she still had the ability to think quickly or clearly enough to make a good decision, nor did she want to risk a look up for fear of being stabbed in the eye by a low-hanging branch.
Storm leapt over logs and wove his way around everything he couldn’t clear. His nose was stretched out as if reaching for the finish line at the Kentucky Derby. His breathing huffed above the pounding of his hooves and the breaking of branches and Niki hoped his strength and endurance would last until they were safely away from the armed men.
As the horse finally managed to put distance between them and the sound of the bikes, Niki took in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. The noise of the engines had all but faded when she dared her first glimpse up since entering the trees. The sight brought a gasp from her lips. The sheer drop off was the last thing she saw as Storm launched himself over the edge without hesitation.