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book excerpt

Danny’s back: Manitoba’s Stoney Mountain penitentiary tattooed atop the Indian Posse logo and a traditional figure.

The Ballad of Danny Wolfe traces the life of the notorious gang leader who co-founded the Indian Posse when he was just 12 and helped it become one of the country's largest street gangs. It explores Danny's youth, his family's history in residential schools, and his progress in the criminal underworld. Globe and Mail journalist Joe Friesen gained unprecedented access to those closest to Danny, as well as his letters and voluminous prison records. This passage begins as Danny, awaiting trial for murder in August, 2008, prepares to lead a daring escape from the Regina jail.

The opening was small but it would do.

Danny knelt on the cement floor and peered out to get his bearings. He could see a narrow ledge running just outside the hole and the interior prison yard down below. He looked behind him, along the corridor toward the guard station. All was quiet. A half-dozen inmates crowded round in anticipation, waiting for Danny to decide. He tied his long hair into a bun on the top of his head and took a deep breath.

"I'm gonna go," he said.

He pushed a leg through the hole and then twisted his upper body behind it, with his head and trailing leg coming last. His heart was pounding and he tried to steady himself to keep his breathing in check. He was outside now, standing on a ledge that ran along the interior of the recreation yard about 10 feet above the ground. He could feel the warm evening air and smell the prairie grass. Directly above him was a surveillance camera that kept watch on the yard.

Below the ledge and across the yard were large windows; patrolling guards could pass them at any moment and see Danny if they looked up. The late summer sun was fading into a dark sky and the prison floodlights had not yet come on. Preston, Danny's little brother, knelt down and passed a jacket and some blankets through the hole.

"Hurry up," Preston whispered.

Danny draped the blankets over the razor wire on top of the wall and began his climb. It was only five feet up from where he stood. He scrambled over the bricks, gripping the metal bars on the windows to pull himself up. Then he picked his way through the razor wire, doing his best to use the blankets to protect himself. In seconds he'd reached the top of the wall. On the other side, the ground was 15 to 20 feet down, but he didn't hesitate. He leapt, tumbling and sprawling on the grass upon landing. He stood up, gingerly testing his feet and ankles. Not broken, still able to run. He glanced around. No sign of the guards.

Preston was next. A hundred thoughts were running through his mind. What if he climbed the wall and then got stuck? What if he was shot? The plan was to turn back if he had to, but would he be able get back down? His heart was racing. I'm going to get caught, he thought.

Preston followed Danny's route through the hole and up the bars to the top of the wall. He caught sight of Danny crouching below, waving, gesturing for him to jump. Preston took the plunge, falling through the air and rolling once he hit the grass.

The brothers waited a few moments to see if the others were coming. Ten seconds passed in anxious silence before they decided they couldn't wait any longer. The others would catch up. There are no watchtowers with sharpshooters at the Regina Correctional Centre, but guards patrol the perimeter. Danny and Preston swivelled their heads in every direction and could see no one. They jogged along the wall, staying in a half-crouch until they reached the edge of the building, then dashed for the nearest fence.

The fence was about 12 feet high and topped with barbed wire. Preston got halfway over before getting tangled up. Struggling made things worse. The wire sliced into him, catching his clothes and cutting his skin. Seeing his little brother in trouble, Danny chose a better spot to go over and then waited as Preston, frazzled, picked himself free and climbed over at a less treacherous point.

They ran farther, scaled one final fence and were out. They had done it, but were by no means safe. The Regina Correctional Centre is surrounded by tabletop-flat farmland, a topography that made them vulnerable. They wore grey prison- issue sweatsuits and were the only people on foot for miles .

They ran through the fields as fast as they could. Danny surged ahead while Preston struggled to keep up with his fitter, stronger, older brother. They ran for about five minutes heading east across the prairie before Danny realized that Regina was in the other direction. He and Preston made a U-turn in a field and took off west, cursing the time they had lost. The first burst of adrenalin was gone and the extreme stress was fast draining their reserves of energy. Preston began to falter. He watched Danny ahead of him, remembering how his brother had nagged him to exercise when they were preparing for the escape. He wished he had got into better shape. Danny eventually turned around and came back for him. They walked together a while, then began to run again. They walked and ran on and off for a few kilometres, eventually making it to railway tracks where Cody Keenatch and Ken Iron, two of the four prisoners who had followed them out of the prison, caught up with them. The other two, Ryan Agecoutay and James Pewean, had already decided to go their own way on the outside, and shortly after reuniting with the brothers, Iron decided to split from Danny and company, thinking he'd be less likely to get spotted by himself.

As darkness set in, Danny, Preston and Cody reached a gravel road. They stopped for a few minutes, unsure what to do. They talked back and forth, weighing different destinations, then decided to follow the railway tracks into Regina. As they entered the city three-quarters of an hour later, Danny was jubilant. He kept saying he couldn't believe they had done it. They wandered around the alleys of Regina's east end for a while as the trio considered their next move. They paused to drink from a garden hose in someone's backyard and regroup.

"At first we were going to go home to Okanese," Preston said, referring to the First Nations reserve about an hour's drive from Regina where their family lives. "Then we thought that wouldn't be good because [the police] would look there.

"I didn't want to call somebody in the middle of the night and say, 'I just broke out of jail, come get me.' Where are we going to go? What are we going to do? We were all discussing it. We didn't know."

With incredible determination and cunning, Danny had just pulled off one of the most spectacular prison breaks in Canadian history. Six gangsters – four of them locked up on murder charges, three of them members of the feared Indian Posse – were on the loose. Danny, who had already served a federal sentence for threatening to kill witnesses, had vowed to take out those who had turned against him this time. Once the implications of this breakout became clear, he would become the most wanted man in the country.

Excerpted from The Ballad of Danny Wolfe by Joe Friesen. Copyright 2016 Joe Friesen. Published by Signal, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.