When Riley Johansen hit the ground outside the prison he was in full-blown combat mode. Every bullet point he had ever learned about being trapped behind enemy lines kicked in. He knew the guards wouldn’t make their rounds until midnight which would give him a full two hours to cross the twelve miles to the Mississippi River.

Prisoners are allowed to wear white sweat suits in the cells and on the yards. However, Johansen knew a white jogging suit would make him stand out, so he meticulously disguised his jogging suit black with red stripes. It had taken him six hours and twenty-five waterproof markers.

His cellie had told him that as soon as “the people” (guards) saw Adidas look-alike they’d take it, which to Riley meant that his trusty roommate would tell “the people” about it. So, once the police-friendly roommate saw it, Riley realized he needed to expedite his plan.

Once outside the security perimeter, Riley took his time to put on the jumper and then shaved his head bald, leaving the beard he has been growing for the last two weeks. He added a pair of Clark Kent glasses he had pickpocketed from a prison ministry worker.

Inmates are allowed headphones and radios at the prison. Riley put his on, not to listen to music, but because people are less likely to talk to you if you’re not likely to be listening. He hit the road right in front of the jail looking like anyone jogging, then set a Green Beret pace toward the Mississippi.

The cardio-capable convict had been preparing himself for the escape through strenuous workouts both in his cell and on the yard. He jogged through the town of Rock Island, Illinois, and paused to catch his breath on the Mississippi River bridge. His eyes were drawn to a historical marker of a shark.

“We are both a long way from home.”

Apparently, around the turn of the century, before the army corps of engineers had tamed the mighty river with a complex system of locks and dams, a fisherman had caught a thousand-pound bull shark who had swum over a thousand miles up the Mississippi.

The lulling sound of the water was interrupted by a parade of blue-lit police cruisers with sirens wailing heading toward the prison. Once while in Airborne training school, Riley ran twelve miles in seventy minutes. Had he not just beaten his own record by eleven minutes he would have been caught.

He looked up at eh shark and said, “Sorry they caught you buddy, but I’m outta here.”

He disappeared into the night like a ghost. Riley spent that first night running almost non-stop. He finally climbed a tree and slept around dawn.

To reduce the odds of being spotted he slept until it was just getting dark, then saw he was on the edge of a field where a dozen horses were grazing peacefully a quarter mile from a barn decorated with a sign reading “Quad Cities Equestrian”.

The calculating commando watched the barn’s activities from the tree, gathering intel. The place was a boarding farm with equestrian jumps scattered about. The caretakers fed the horses in the evening, but because of the summer heat, the place was deserted. Riley watched the last of the caretakers leave and proceeded into the barn.

His first instinct was to steal a car, but since he was well versed in how to evade detection, he knew that was the number one way to be apprehended. There would already be a ten-mile perimeter set up and traffic monitors for a further fifty miles. He crouched behind the barn and froze when he thought he heard voices. Upon further investigation it was just a radio, probably to calm the horses. He stood to creep inside and was pushed from behind.

Riley’s skills took over and he spun, prepared to neutralize the enemy. As he turned with lightning quickness, prepared to go for the throat of his attacker, he became face to face with a big-eyed, curious filly who stood almost seventeen hands high. Riley could barely see over her back when he stood and relaxed from his stance.

Most horses would have shied and run away at the excited escapee’s sudden movement, but not this filly. She was bottle-raised, and bottle-raised babies are more accepting of humans than other horses. She nosed him again, curing him to pet her forehead.

“Well, I was hoping for a motorbike, but I think I like you better.”

Riley’s family were upper-class New Englanders and he had ridden horses all his life. His ability with them had helped him many times in the mountains of Afghanistan. He snuck into the barn and reemerged with a backpack full of supplies from the tack room refrigerator, and English saddle, and a bridle.

Johansen eyed the filly with scrutiny as he walked around her. He lifted up each hoof checking for good secure shoes, which she had. He noticed long, narrow gashed on her sides made by sharp spurs called rowls that the more unscrupulous trainers used. There were small triangle-shaped welts peppering her side made by a small whip called a bat.

“You don’t seem ill-tempered.”

The big filly blinked a round, gentle, black eye as if she agreed with him.

“Let’s see how old you are, pretty eyes.”

He gently opened her lips. “Well, you’re just a baby.”

He ran a finger down the side of her jawline and she flinched. “No wonder you gave somebody problems. You are cutting your three-year-old wolf teeth.” He went back in the barn and came out with a bitless bridle. “You’ll like this a lot better.” She rubbed him affectionately with her loving head.

Now Riley knew enough to write the manual on how to escape and survive behind enemy lines. He had worked his last two years in counter-terrorism abroad and had more than once had to vanish and reappear countries away for extraction. He knew that what he was doing was very dangerous and violated all the rules of the deadly game he found himself. He was becoming emotionally involved with a contact and he was on the verge of taking on a partner. But before becoming a Green Beret and then a Delta Force operative, he had been an Army Ranger. She rubbed him again with her head and he muttered, “We leave no man behind…or horse.”

He lifted her head to face his and said, “Alright, Pretty Eyes, I don’t want you to get into anything you’re not prepared for. If I bust you out of this joint you’ll be aiding and abetting a fugitive. That’s a Federal crime.” She flicked her head as if she understood him. “Well, that settles it, then. Partners.”

He saddled the filly and rode her around the field to get the feel of her training. They galloped toward a five-foot jump and she sailed over it with two feet to spare.

“Yeah!” he said before he remembered he was trying to sneak. He whispered, “Dang, if Clyde Barrows had someone like you, he’d still be robbing banks.”

When they jumped the fence at the back of the property and headed out into the world, Riley Johansen became aware that eighteen months locked in a cell had finally made him a criminal. He smiled at the fact that he just become a horse thief.