Maggie recognized menace as it slid over DC’s face right before the female tank, shielded by her groupies, slammed her against the chain-link fence. “Too late to run, Miss Prissy White Girl. I been waitin’ for you.”
Trying to swallow with the woman’s forearm pressing against her throat, Maggie clutched at the woman’s arm. Someone, guard, please. Already spots floated before her eyes. Air, I need air.
“That’s enough.” Maggie heard the words from a distance, and air, blessed air returned to her lungs as DC lurched backward, propelled by a black hand sunk into her shoulder.
“Beat it.” Kool Kat hissed as she slid in front of Maggie. Both women smiled and kept their voices low so as not to attract the attention of the correctional officers, who were safe in their bulletproof shelter by the fence. She turned to Maggie. “Keep walkin’ like nothin’ wrong.”
Maggie kept from staggering and resumed her walk, fear flailing her shoulders like a crazed jockey.
After the big black woman sauntered back to the exercise yard population, Maggie rubbed her throat. Four months until her review by the parole board and she’d almost not lived to see it. She tried to breathe evenly to calm the deep trembles. Seven years of keeping her head down, three of them here at Los Lomas and she’d only this once had any trouble. She’d been afraid at her sentencing, afraid of being alone with her memories, afraid with the terror of a normal woman—as she used to see herself—in an abnormal environment. But now, with DC having marked her, she knew real fear.
“Roberts, I’ve got something for you.” Ms. Donelli, head of the occupational programs, beckoned from The Bubble where the correctional officers stayed, watching the prisoners in the concrete exercise yard. DC had made sure none of the COs had seen her little activity. There was always a way not to be seen. Until a few moments ago, Maggie thought she knew most of them.
She trotted over to the gate, managing a wave at the correctional officer who checked her name off the roster as she passed through the gate.
“What’s up?” Maggie asked, voice still raspy from the attack. At five-five she felt like a dachshund next to a Great Dane. Elegant was the word for Ms. Donelli, a word and concept Maggie had left behind with her entry into the penal system. They entered the three-story, cut-stone building that housed A wing and climbed two flights of concrete stairs. Even with freshly painted green walls, the bars on the windows screamed prison.
“A new program. You’re a fit. Parole in four months instead of release in a year and a half.” Ms. Donelli smiled down at Maggie and nodded at another inmate they met.
Smiles were a precious commodity in Maggie’s life so she horded this one, just like she had done since the accident that sent her here.
“Your record’s good,” Ms. Donelli continued. The officer of the day sat at the front desk and greeted them both as they turned down the hall to the offices.
Which meant she’d stayed out of trouble with both inmates and staff. Until today. How fast would the grapevine travel and this carrot be removed?
“And I heard you like horses.”
“I did… as a kid.”
Donelli ushered Maggie into her private office and motioned to sit beside her on a love seat that, like the other furnishings in the room, had seen better days. Donelli lived by the rule she touted. The budget was better spent on helping inmates than decorating offices. “An organization called The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has contracted with us to rehabilitate horses that can no longer race for one reason or another. The program pioneered in New York, but we will be the first one in a women’s prison. If you agree to do this, you will care for the horses along with taking classes in stable management.”
“So are you saying this will be a paid job, like working on the beef ranch?”
“Yes, they’ll actually be appropriating the unused barns at the beef ranch. Are you interested?”
Pictures of the horses she’d cared for at the riding stable in her teens flashed through her mind. Dusty with the loose lower lip who loved lemon drops; Jefferson who nosed her pockets for carrots; old Silver who acted like he was going to kick the daylights out of you but once you laid a hand on his rump, nickered a soft hello. Did she want to work with horses again—did dogs bark? A tiny sliver of—what? excitement?—shivered down her spine.
“Yes, please.” She brushed a straw-like hank of hair from her eyes. It needed trimming with her nail scissors again. She’d realized that anyone who had known her as the wife of a rising executive and stay-at-home mom wouldn’t recognize her now. Back then, she’d known she was attractive with sun streaked brown hair and laughing blue eyes. Her husband Dennis often told her how beautiful she was. Now the mirror said mousy, nondescript—a perfect cover for safety’s sake.
“Good. We’ll be starting with ten inmates and ten horses. Our occupational trainer is a man named Trenton James. He’s managed horse farms for years. Comes highly recommended as both a teacher and a trainer.”
“When do we start?”
Tomorrow she would be safer—far away at the barns—safe from DC. Even though she knew no one was ever really safe on the inside of prison fences. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Do you have any suggestions for others who might be interested?”
The immense bulk of Kool Kat plucking DC’s arm off Maggie’s throat skittered across her mind. She owed a debt. “Kool Kat.”
Donelli seemed surprised by the suggestion. Everyone knew Kool Kat was regarded as one of the tougher prisoners and had been called many uncomplimentary names by more than a few. Starting in her teens, she’d been incarcerated enough times to know her way around prison rules and make some of her own.
“She’s inner-city LA, probably never seen a horse in real life,” Donelli said dismissively.
“I know, but she told me once when we were working in the kitchen that she likes animals. She’s a hard worker.” And strong as a sumo wrestler, fortunately for me.
“I’ll consider it.”
Maggie knew that possibly doing someone a favor was stepping out of character and might cost her. She’d lived her life in prison by the words an old woman told her when she first came in: “Just get through.” Staying to herself all these years had gotten her through. But Kool Kat had saved her life. It wasn’t the same as conferring favors with contraband perfume. This was different. Besides, she had read that change started in the mind. No matter if she was in prison or not.
The next morning Maggie joined the small group waiting for the van to take them to the beef ranch, part of which would soon be a horse farm.
Kool Kat, her black hair braided and looped in intricate swirls, stopped beside Maggie. She lowered her voice. “What you be wantin’?”
Keeping her eyes directed toward the floor, Maggie whispered back. “We’re even.” The snort from the woman who dominated the prison yard made her wonder if she’d done the right thing. She’d seen firsthand what happened when someone crossed Kool Kat; that woman’s face bore a scar for life.
A broad shouldered man with the standard issue clipboard strode through the door. Square jawed with a golden tan that matched his short-cropped hair and eyes that crinkled, he wore assurance and contentment like a longtime favorite shirt. He stopped by the desk and waited for the conversations to cease. “I’m Mr. James and I’m the occupational trainer with this new program. Please answer when I call your name, and we’ll get on the road.” He was dressed in jeans and a blue plaid western shirt instead of the usual tan uniform, and the tone and timber of his voice set Maggie at ease.
Maggie’s name was fifth. “Here.” She raised her right hand. At his nod, she followed the others out the door to the waiting bus. While she’d been so careful not to get involved, Maggie knew all the women who’d agreed to the program. Blonde Sim was in for bank robbery; she’d driven the getaway car and missed her two kids so badly she’d do anything to keep out of trouble. Like Maggie, parole was a possibility in the near future. Petite JJ with the charming smile and dubious methods of anger management; Brandy, the youngest of them all, in for possession and dealing, wore cockiness like armor and had gotten on the bad side of the COs’ more than once.
Weren’t there supposed to be ten women? Maggie’d only counted nine. As she turned around to sit down in the middle seat next to the window, she heard Mr. James talking to someone and a moment later, a woman boarded the bus. Maggie’s stomach leaped to her mouth, and it was all she could do not to hurl the cold cereal she’d eaten at breakfast.
DC swaggered in, her gaze riveted on Maggie. For the veriest of seconds, she slowed by the bench seat where JJ sat next to Maggie. DC was up for possession and armed robbery, along with other violent crimes, but like many others she said she’d been framed. Her record in prison according to the COs sounded like she sang in the church choir, but the inmates knew better. Her infrequent smile sported two gold front teeth.
The door shut and another man took the driver’s seat while Mr. James stood in the well by the door.
“First of all, our driver is my assistant, Mr. Creston. Besides driving, he’ll be in charge if for any reason I have to be absent. Next I have some announcements to make. We’ll be going by the prisoner’s handbook, which I am sure you all have memorized, but I have a few additions. Number one: there is no second chance. If you mistreat either animals or humans, you are out of here and back to the yard. I’ll teach you all that I can, but like the saying goes: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a man—or a woman in this case—to knowledge, but you can’t make her think.” He paused and looked them each in the eye. “I hope you . . . well, learn all you can. It’s the first time this program has been offered to women. Women have a reputation for good intuition with horses as well as compassion. Horses are honest, what you see is what you get, not like humans who play games. If you have trouble with a horse, you might want to look inside yourself and see if you can figure what he sees and is reacting to.”
Maggie let his words sink into her mind. Could she do that? Learning from the horses would be easy, but look inside herself? She shuddered. She’d spent the last seven years avoiding herself, along with all the groups’ and counselors’ probing—just getting through.
The bus stopped in front of a long, low shed. “You’ll be helping some men who have volunteered to build stalls and fencing. Horses have a knack for tangling up in wire so we’re installing all wooden fences here. We have ten days to get ready. I’ll be checking out the tools, and at the end of our session, you need to check them back in. Can I see a show of hands if you’ve ever used a hammer?” He counted and nodded. “And a saw?” Noting something on his clipboard he led the way down the stairs. As they filed down the three steps he said their name and pointed either to the left or the right.
“Kool Kat,” she replied, meeting his eyes.
“You’d rather be called that?”
“Yeah, Mr. James, that’s what I said.”
At his smile, a spate of chuckles blew through the group. He nodded toward the left.
“Maggie it is.” He nodded for her to follow Kool Kat.
The driver of the vehicle handed them each a hammer. “You’ll find nails at the building site. Follow the instructions of Mr. Hansen, he’s the foreman.”
Maggie nodded and sucked in a deep breath of real air. Air not tainted by chain-link fences topped with concertina wire and the hot concrete of the yard, nor by the misery and hostility of those inhaling and exhaling. Free air that had passed over pastures and lingered in the trees. She inhaled again and raised her face to the sun. Soon she would be breathing free air 24/7—if they granted her parole and DC didn’t kill her first.
She’d always loved being outdoors, her garden and yard had born testimony to that. Camping and hiking, they’d loved the mountains, especially the Sierras.
She blinked in the dimness of the building before her eyes adjusted from the sun. A stack of rough-sawn lumber filled the aisle in front of timbers that were already concreted into the dirt floor. Sawhorses topped with sheets of thick plywood held a chop saw where two men were cutting the boards to the proper lengths.
“If you’ll come on over here,” another man called, beckoning them to one of the stalls. “We’re nailing the walls up; the nails are in the bucket. Put three nails in each end, like the one you see here. The sooner you learn to hit the nails square, the faster they’ll go in. I take it you’ve all used hammers before?”
Maggie nodded as she looked at the stack of boards. From the size of it, she’d be nailing until she got paroled. Tapping nails to hang pictures with her husband didn’t look to have anything in common with building walls for horse stalls.
An hour later, with repeated help from the foreman, Kool Kat and Maggie began to make progress, although their fingers and thumbs bore witness to their inexperience.
By the time they had to return to the correctional facility for head count and lunch, her back ached, her thumb throbbed, and they had nailed one wall up to six feet.
“We ahead of the others.” Kool Kat returned from looking at the other stalls.
Maggie stared at her partner. “We’re not in a race here.”
Kool Kat leaned into Maggie’s face, her voice taking on a hiss. “I play, I win.”
The threat made Maggie take a step backward. And they were supposed to be partners? She headed for the bus, keeping a watch out for both Kool Kat and DC.
“Good work, ladies,” Mr. James said as they filed off the bus. “See you in a few.”
“Not if I see you first,” Kool Kat grumbled.
“You aren’t going back?” Maggie asked, hope flaring.
“Course I’m goin’ back.” A fierce look accompanied her reply. “But I never worked so hard in my entire life. Feels like my arm’s about to fall off.”
“I wish mine would.” Maggie flexed her right arm and stretched her neck from side to side. When she looked at her palm, the blisters were no surprise. Kool Kat raised hers, and even though she had dark skin, the seeping showed.
“I’ll get us bandages and leather gloves.” Kool Kat said matter-of-factly.
Maggie knew Kool Kat had ways of getting things. “Us? Why would you do that?”
“Simple. I don’t quit.” She paused, her eyes narrowed. “And these partners are gonna win.” She tapped Maggie on the shoulder.
Maggie heard the unspoken words, “at any cost.” Nine more days until the horses, four months until probation. She would pound all the nails they wanted for that.
Ten days later the remaining nine women—one had backed out—were lined up as a horse van pulled into the driveway. Ten stalls, all with doors that swung on hinges, with sliding latches waited for the guests. Maggie and Kool Kat had put up more boards than all the others put together, and they both had the muscles and calluses to prove it. Maggie often felt like she was being towed along by a freight train.
DC brushed by Maggie, bumping her with her hip. Maggie went sprawling. Mr. James turned.
“Sorry, clumsy,” Maggie lied, getting to her feet, not looking at DC.
As the first Thoroughbred limped down the ramp, Kool Kat backed up. “What they bring us, giants?”
Maggie rolled her eyes and shook her head. What was that feeling in her face? Her lips even twitched.
“This is Dancer’s Delight, eight years old and won $750,000 in his years on the track. If you look at his left hind leg, you’ll see the bow in his tendon. Maggie, since you’ve worked with horses before, you take him to stall ten.”
Blinking back something in her eyes, Maggie walked forward and stopped in front of the horse, allowing him to sniff her hand and up her arm. She reached slowly for the lead shank.
“Easy fella, you’re safe now.” Shank in hand, she led him around the van to the stalls, half listening to Mr. James’ voice as he used her as an example on how to handle the horses.
Maggie moved slow-and-easy-like around her cross-tied horse, keeping watch on his ears. Dancer, as she had decided to call him, not only had leg and foot problems, but someone or many someones had treated him with less than gentle hands. His upper lip wore a scar from the use of a twitch, an age-old and cruel control mechanism that pinched a horse’s upper lip. The tremors that shook him possibly came from abuse too—or neglect.
“Easy fella, no one’s going to hurt you here.” She kept up her soothing singsong as she took up a soft brush and worked on his neck again. Gentle strokes, gentle hands. Like petting a dog. “Pet him gently, son, like this,” she’d told her toddler when they met a dog at the park.
She closed her eyes, clamping off the memory. Why so many memories today? Usually they didn’t attack her until just before she slipped into sleep, jerking her awake.
She could feel the horse begin to relax, the quivers dying until he finally released one sigh and then another.
As did she. All the forced labor had indeed been worth it.
Before it was time to leave, all six of the horses were in their stalls with fresh hay and water, examined by Mr. James and assigned to an inmate, who was being instructed on the type of care her charge needed.
“You did well with Dancer’s Delight, keep it up,” Mr. James commented as she passed by him to board the bus.
A compliment. How long had it been since she had received a compliment, and from a man no less? Maggie stored it away in her heart to be taken out and polished when she needed a lift.
“Thank you. I will.” I will. I can do this.
Maggie returned to her room before lunch, grateful that she didn’t have to share a cell, like she had at the other places where she’d been incarcerated. Here at Los Lomas, she had a room three feet longer than her bed and three feet wider, with a door that closed to which she owned the key.
Sitting down on her bed, she looked at her hands, held them to her nose, and smelled them. Her mother used to tell her to go wash as soon as she came back from the stable because she stunk of horse. But I don’t stink, she told herself. I smell of horse, and this afternoon I will smell of horse again.
Not of prison.
A knock on her door brought her back to the moment. “Yes?”
“Maggie, it’s Kool Kat.”
Maggie stood and crossed to unlock the door. “Come in.”
“No.” Kool Kat leaned against the door frame, eyes narrowed as if searching for a fight. She stared hard at Maggie. “Will you help me?”
Maggie started, knowing what the words cost her. “With what?”
Maggie stared at the woman still glaring at her. “What’s the problem?”
“He don’t like me.”
“How do you know?”
“He bit me.” She showed the bruise on her arm. It was a nasty one and would soon turn black-purple.
“He’s afraid. It has nothing to do with liking or disliking you.”
“Well he ain’t nearly afraid of me much as I be afraid of him. He one big…”
“Horse,” Maggie said softly before Kool Kat could revert to her usual language.
One eyebrow rose as the woman leaning against the doorjamb smiled real slow like. “Yeah, horse. That’s another thing. Mr. James say we got to learn—all the parts of the horse.”
Maggie knew the other inmates thought her stuck-up because she didn’t mix well, but early on she’d learned that staying to herself was safer. Just get through this, as the old woman had told her. And that’s just what she had done before drawing the attention of DC. She’d kept from making friends all these years, if she gave in now she knew something bad was going to happen. But she still found herself saying, “I’ll help you this afternoon.” Maggie paused, still staring at Kool Kat. “Why are you staying with the program? You don’t have to.”
The narrowed eyes made Maggie wish she’d not said anything.
“I tole you, I ain’t no quitter… Let’s go eat.”
The next day three more horses arrived. Mr. James introduced each one, again listing earnings, age, injuries, treatment, and who he assigned to care for the horse. Maggie now had two of the Thoroughbreds to care for, making her look at him with questions in her eyes.
“I can tell you know what you’re doing. And when you have them settled in, I want you to show the others how to lead a horse out to graze.” Mr. James then began the day’s lecture on hand-feeding, adjusting halters, tying knots, and leading a horse. He gave them ropes to practice tying the knots and made them take turns putting halters on one of the easier-to-handle horses. “Tomorrow we’ll do grooming and bathing,” he announced at the end of the lesson.
“Ain’t no tub big enough.” The soulful look on Kool Kat’s face made everyone laugh. Except for Maggie whose lips did no more than twitch again.
By the end of two weeks, they’d lost Sim, who’d been paroled and tearfully gone back to her kids, and gained two more women: Jules who was serving life without parole and was known as a scholar and Willy who asked for a transfer to the horse program from the laundry. James assigned Brandy and JJ, who were now considered experienced, to one of the newer horses, who needed far more care than the others. His feet and legs had to be soaked every day, using canvass boots that reached past his knees. After the vet came and floated the horse’s teeth so he could chew decently again, the women mixed up a mash with ground grain, molasses, vitamins, an antibiotic, and warm water to try to build their charge back up.
“How could anyone starve him like this?” JJ, short for Janice and known for her fiery Latino temper, asked. “Why not just sell him?”
“I think he was left in a stall, and maybe they forgot him,” Maggie answered, stroking the horse’s nose.
“They oughta be shot.” JJ used a cloth to stroke the horse’s neck. “He has hives so bad he can’t even be brushed.” This from a woman so high on crack she’d once shot her boyfriend when he brought home the wrong-sized serving of fries from McDonald’s.
Two weeks later the stronger and more easily handled horses were let loose in the paddocks, some alone while others had progressed to tolerating other horses nearby, forming a small herd. The inmates gathered at the fence for their daily lecture at the usual spot when it wasn’t held in the large area at the far end of the barn.
“Okay, ladies, here’s your quiz for today.” Mr. James handed a paper with the outline of a horse to each of them as they sat on the grass. “Take out your pencils and fill it in, no cheating. Soon as you are finished, hand it to me and go about your chores.”
While there were the normal groans, no one said much until Brandy asked, “Does spelling count? How do you spell ‘withers’?”
Mr. James ignored the giggles. Brandy asked the same question every quiz.
“How come we can’t have multiple choice?” Kool Kat got another chuckle. The girls were all in good form this day. The cool breeze helped.
Finished long before the others, Maggie lifted her face to feel both the sun and the breeze. Watching the grazing horses was about as close to freedom as she could get now, but soon she’d be living without bars. She turned her head at the sound of a truck shifting down and watched it haul a trailer along the drive to the horse barn.
“Were we expecting a new horse today?” she asked as she stood and handed in her paper.
The trailer shook from the hooves pounding inside. “Not that I know of.” Mr. James studied the vehicle. “Collect the rest of the papers, would you?” He handed hers back to her and headed toward the driveway.
“What’s happening?” JJ asked.
Maggie shrugged as she accepted several of the papers, and the women leaned against the fence, watching the show.
“He be a mean one.” Kool Kat handed in her paper.
“Hey, Mr. Creston, make sure the number one stall has clean bedding,” Mr. James called from the side of the truck. “Water and hay too.”
A scream from the trailer made the hair on the back of Maggie’s neck stand on end. She figured her eyes were as round as the others’.
“That from the horse?” Brandy asked, moving closer to Maggie as if seeking safety.
Maggie nodded, the scream still echoing in her mind. She’d never heard a horse make a noise like that.
“Who gets that horse? Not me,” Brandy whispered.
The tailgate sent up dust puffs as it hit the dirt, and the trailer rocked from the force within.
“Bring him out easy,” Mr. James ordered.
“This horse don’t do easy.” One of the haulers backed out of the trailer. “Ya better get two ropes on him.” More scuffle as the other man tried to do as he was told. A string of profanity announced his feelings about the horse.
“Okay, I’ve got him.”
The blood bay horse backed out of the trailer in a rush, dragging the two handlers with him. When his front feet hit the dirt, he reared, slashing the air with both front hooves. One of the men ducked and shouted at the other. “Tighten up on your rope before he kills me.”
“Bring him over to that open door.” Mr. James pointed to the open barn door.
“Right, like we can lead him anywhere.” The horse reared again and came down teeth bared, lunging at one of the men. “Tighten up, I said.”
“I ain’t takin’ that horse, no way.” Kool Kat hugged the fence. “I’ll go back to the yard afore that.”
Once near the barn, the horse headed for the open stall door, dragging the men behind him. When he stormed in, Mr. James slammed both the top and bottom halves shut. A frenzy of hooves pounding the walls rewarded his quick action.
“I’ll get your ropes back to you after he calms down.”
“Good luck. Only one solution for that one . . . a fast bullet.” The two men climbed back in the truck and drove off. The horse screamed again, his hooves thundering on the stall walls. The crack of wood told of the power of his kicks.
Mr. James settled his straw wide-brimmed hat tighter on his head and glanced down at the paper one of the men had given him. “Sounds like Breaking Free is trying to do just that. If we can’t get him under control, he’ll have to be put down. He could put the whole Thoroughbred program in jeopardy.” He looked at each of the dumbstruck women. “Stall one is off limits, you understand?”