(Image courtesy of Pinterest.)
After a night of rest and plenty of water, the fugitive Fence Jumpers felt refreshed and strengthened. Skyler was already on his feet and planning the trip back to the Wal-Mart. Nobody wanted to stay behind when the water was returned. Everyone wanted to be there when Wes was returned to them, in case something went wrong. Not even Skipper could be persuaded to stay.
"Alright!" Skyler said over the arguing voices. "Skip comes. But Skipper you have to stick right beside one of us at all times. We can't lose you too."
Skipper nodded. Skyler looked at his friends and tried to smile. "We'll be fine, guys. Wes will be fine. We'll get him out of there, and maybe figure out something with these people over the water."
"Like what?" Ethan asked. "We know how they act when we steal it."
"Then we'll ask for some," Skyler replied. "I don't know. I don't even know who these people are, but they're probably more than just homeless people. They have weapons, and they're not afraid to use them on others. We'll have to play it careful and by their rules."
"What if their rules involve shooting us?" Jonah asked.
"Then we cheat and run." Skyler smiled. "We'll be okay, guys. We can do this."
"We'd better get moving then." Aggie stood.
The Jumpers started off before the sun had barely risen. The remaining water was nestled in the wagon, and the boys took turns pulling it while Aggie and Hannah kept a lookout. They made good time, and reached the Wal-Mart just as the sun was setting.
Skyler led his friends inside the building. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting before moving forward.
"Wes?" Skipper called quietly. Hannah led the way to where the water was kept. The remaining water had been removed, but Ethan and Jonah replaced the stolen water on the shelves.
Footsteps made everyone look up. Skyler hefted the crowbar he had brought from the garage, stepping forward. Jonah stepped up beside him.
"You brought all the water back?" A male voice asked. A figure stood just inside the shadows further down the aisle.
"Yeah," Skyler said. "Now give us back our friend."
"Back away from the water and let my people take it, and you'll get him back."
"We brought your stupid water back," Skyler snarled. "Now hand him over."
"Do as I say or your friend gets hurt."
"Skyler," Hannah's pleading voice made Skyler hesitate. He looked back at her, and she looked at him. "Skyler, just do what they want."
"See? Your friend knows what we can do. Now back off."
Skyler scowled, but he waved Jonah back, and he backed up too. Two people slipped out of the shadows, two boys, and collected the water. Skyler watched them closely, but they were ignoring him. They were just teens, like he was, but they didn't look like homeless runaways. Their clothes were clean and fairly whole.
"Let our friend go," Skyler demanded. "Where is he?"
A girl about fifteen years old led Wes before her, a gun in hand, as the two boys disappeared with the water. While she was probably a good foot shorter than he was, she still looked intimidating. Wes had his hands bound behind him and a gag in his mouth. His jawbone had a big purple bruise.
"What did you do to him?" Skyler demanded.
"He's fine," the voice said, sounding exasperated. "Only one of you come forward to get him."
The girl forced Wes to his knees. Wes watched Skyler steadily, his face expressionless, but tired. Skyler stepped forward cautiously.
"That's it," the voice encouraged. "Slowly."
"Shut up," Skyler snapped. The girl raised her pistol to the bruise on Wes's jaw, and Skyler froze. Wes cringed away from the touch, and Skyler felt a flare of anger.
The girl watched Skyler for a minute, then holstered the gun and pulled out a tiny Swiss Army knife. She slid it across the floor to Skyler, who caught it under his shoe.
"You can break the zip-tie with that," she said, her voice sharp and commanding. Skyler bent down and picked up the pitiful knife as the girl backed away into the shadows. Skyler walked forward.
Wes watched him and held still as Skyler struggled to cut the tie. Once the tie was snapped Wes brought his arms back around and yanked off the gag, inhaling deeply.
"Are you okay?" Skyler asked worriedly. "What did they do to you?"
"I'm fine," Wes whispered, his voice hoarse. "They just knocked me unconscious."
"Did they give you any water?" Skyler asked, pulling him to his feet.
"Not really," Wes replied. "I'll be fine, Skyler."
Skyler nodded and watched Wes join the others, where Hannah hugged him. Wes didn't even complain or move.
Skyler turned back around. "Who are you people?"
"That's not your concern. Now get out."
"You hurt my friend," Skyler snapped. "He can barely walk thanks to you."
"We did no such thing--"
"He's dehydrated!" Skyler shouted. "You socked him in the jaw. I think we deserve some answers. We didn't know the water belonged to anyone, so you didn't need to pull the hostage for ransom card on us."
There was quiet whispering from the shadows. Skyler felt a bit lightheaded, but he shook it off. He was probably just getting too upset after a long trek through the streets.
"Be on your way," the person in the shadows said. "We--"
"Tell us who you are!" Skyler cut him off. "You have guns, you have a lot of water. You're not just homeless people we see outside..."
Skyler felt dizzy, and he couldn't think as clearly anymore. His legs buckled and gave out.
"Skyler!" Hannah ran forward, catching him and supporting him. "Skyler, what's wrong?"
"He hasn't been getting enough water," the voice said.
"Yeah, and I wonder why that is," Hannah growled. "He hasn't had enough because you demanded it back or else our friend gets hurt. He didn't want to take any chances."
"I'm fine," Skyler murmured. But his mind felt fuzzy, like he couldn't focus on one thing for very long.
"Please," Hannah said. "Help us. If you have any water you can spare--"
The whispering in the shadows began again. Skyler attempted to straighten up, but Hannah never left his side. He looked up when someone stepped out of the shadows. A teenage guy with short, somewhat spiked blond hair, jeans, and a plaid button-up.
"Are there any more of you?" He asked. Skyler recognized the voice as the one who had been the primary speaker.
"Just us," Skyler replied.
The other guy nodded. "Come with us."
The girl who had released Wes appeared.
"Kate, not now," the boy said. "They need help. We can't turn them away. You and Steph bring the others."
"I can walk." Skyler pulled away from Hannah when she prepared to help him. "I'm okay."
"You're as dehydrated as your friend is," the boy said. "Don't overexert yourself."
"Oh, he's been doing that for two years." Hannah rolled her eyes. The boy looked startled. Skyler smiled, but his legs gave out again.
"You idiot," she told him. "You're anything but okay."
"Yeah, I know." Skyler pushed himself up. "Worth a try." He looked at the boy. "Can you help us?"
"We can." he nodded, walking toward Kate. "Follow me." He looked back around. "I'm Conway."
"Skyler. And thank you."
Conway nodded. "This way."
Skyler and his friends followed Conway, Kate, and their group to the "employees only" area. There, Kate and another boy lifted a floor panel up, revealing a ladder that dropped down into darkness.
"Ladies first," Conway said as the other boy shone a bright flashlight down into the hole. "It's safe."
Hannah looked at Skyler. He hesitated, then nodded. If these people wanted to hurt them they would have done it by now. Skyler and his friends wouldn't have had the strength to fight back anyways.
Hannah descended the ladder, followed by Kate, Skipper, Aggie, and a couple other girls. Then the other guys descended with the water, and the one with the flashlight helped Wes down.
"After you," Conway said to Skyler.
Skyler looked down the hole, then descended. He began to wonder what exactly he and his friends were getting themselves into.