MORNING

It was still early, the sun was not up yet but the birds were stirring. Chief lay still, listening but other than someone breathing there were no other sounds. He had met too many people who complained about being woken up by the birds, but they didn't know any better. The sound of birds meant all was well. Silence meant danger. For a bird that could mean a cat or a person. Best to heed any warning. For now he didn't have to worry but old habits die hard. Yes, he liked to hear the birds.

His bed was comfortable, an army cot and maybe not up to some peoples standards, but it was better than some beds he had had to endure in the past. The worst had to be the steel slab with the thin lumpy stained mattress in the county lock up in some backwater town in Texas. Sleeping on the floor with the cockroaches was better than risking fleas, lice and bedbugs. He had forgotten the name of the town but the cell he would never forget or his cell mate who took him with him when he escaped and then knocked him out and left him for the sheriff. Here the sheets were clean and the blanket was even decently soft. A guy could get used to this.

Looking up he could see the high ceiling with its ornate mouldings and though there was not enough light to see the detail he knew it was there. He had been in a few buildings when he was in New York that had fancy work like this. The window next to his bed was small, just big enough to climb out of but as a reminder of his past and present state it was barred. Oh well, as long as he could see out. That was not as good as being out but he would settle for that for now. There was a tree near the window and it was here that the birds congregated at dusk to spend the night and greet the morning.

Awake now he stretched slowly and silently before easing the covers off. He sat on the edge of his cot with his feet on the floor. It was cool as was the air but in spite of the small windows the room was not stuffy. He rubbed his face and surveyed the room. The three other cots were still occupied so he stood, stretched again and moved to the window. He missed having a view to the east so he could see the sun rise but even a north one was better than none at all. He placed his hands on the sill and leaned closer but not close enough to rattle the bars. On their first trip to France Goniff had returned with a file and between them they had cut the bars then hung them so no one would notice. He moved his face as close as he could and inhaled. The air was cool and washed clean by the dew which lay heavily on the grass. The birds had stopped their morning chattering when he had appeared but now the ones in the farthest branches cautiously resumed. The rest soon took up the chorus. The sky was lightening, the sun would be up soon though the clouds would obscure the actually rays. There seemed to be a lot of cloudy days here unlike where he had spent the best part of his life. One more deep breath and he turned away.

Silently he slipped on his pants and made his way through the double doors and down the hall to the head. One other door was closed so he was in time. When he was finished the other door was open so he made his way to the kitchen. The other early riser was standing at the counter drinking the last of a glass of water so he waited then followed him out the back door and then down the steps to the courtyard. The two men did some basic stretches then started out at a fast walk before starting their run.

The first time he had come down to the kitchen and had found he was not alone he had been surprised that anyone else was up but then realized that being military he was probably used to it. He had expected to be yelled at or accused of trying to take off but nothing was said. The soldier had simply had a glass of water and then left. He had watched him jog off into the mist returning some time later. Why would he run first thing in the morning then again when he made them run later in the day? They complained about having to run but were told it was to get into shape in case they had to escape from somewhere.

A few days later he had surprised himself when he had met up again in the early morning and he had asked if he could go with him. He was also surprised when he received a nod, so he had followed. He soon fell behind but had finished. Why did he do it? Why exert yourself when you didn't have to? He could stay in and sit around, go back to bed. He wasn't sure but he thought it wasn't the run but who he went with. There was something about the man, he was someone he could follow. It wasn't as if the soldier encouraged him, it was just, he felt comfortable with him. Maybe it was because he …. he could't put it into words. Was it that the man had what he wanted, what he wanted to be like? He didn't know. For some reason he wanted to show that he wasn't just some punk that belonged in prison. Cause he wasn't. He wanted to be someone, to be able to hold his head up and look people in the eye and be accepted. Maybe this gig could get him there, maybe if he survived this he could be enough of a hero that people would forget his past and accept him. He would never ever tell anyone this because he knew they would laugh at him but it was what he hoped for.

By now with enough practice he was able to keep up with Garrison. He thought he knew why the man ran. It felt good to get out and though they were together it was a kind of solitude, each alone with their thoughts for they rarely spoke. There was a kind of exhilaration from the exertion. The feel of his heart beating, his breathing getting easier, his muscles responding. It felt good.

After last nights return from a short but busy trip to the continent Chief did not expect anyone else in the kitchen when they returned from their run. All was quiet. Chief grabbed the coffee pot and filled it while Garrison lit the stove. The two sat and each took a section of the Stars and Stripes. Chief had no use for newspapers except the want ads when he was looking for a job or a room to let but seeing Garrison reading and having nothing to do until the coffee perked, he had taken to scanning the pages. Garrison was engrossed so Chief figured he would not notice it took him a long time to read stuff. Besides the cartoons were sometimes funny. He made sure he did not laugh out loud because he saw that Garrison did not. Sometimes Actor laughed and commented to Garrison about it and he would smile. Just in case it was not that funny he would keep it to himself. Sometimes if he thought it was funny he would wait and see if Actor thought so too. He was not always right. There were times he did not know who the characters were. Maybe if he read the paper more he would figure that out.

By the time they had had their coffee Actor wandered into the room. He placed the newspaper he had picked up on their trip on the table then got his cup and filled it before sitting down. Garrison had finished his piece so Chief traded. He had not finished but that was all right. He always kept an eye out so he would not hold him up. A quick look told him that Actor's paper was French. He thought how nice it would be to be able to read another language. Actor had once told him and Goniff that they had a hard enough time speaking English, much less French or German. Chief had resented him for that for a time but had since realized that it was true. Why get mad at someone for saying the truth. Instead he had listened more closely to how Actor talked. He noticed little things and tried to copy them. He also watched Garrison as well. Couldn't hurt, unless they made fun of him.

Casino and Goniff wandered in and after getting coffee breakfast was on. Today was Goniff turn so he headed to the stove, frying pan in hand.

"Where's the,?"

Knowing what was coming Chief replied, "I'll get'em," as he headed out the door. Across the terrace and down the steps he ran. He didn't mind fetching the eggs, though sometimes he wished the hens didn't make such a ruckus when he went in. It reminded him of times he had to raid farmers' hen houses just to get something to eat. At least now they were cooked and by somebody else. He scattered food for the birds then searched each nest and placed the treasures in the rolled up lower hem of his shirt. Seven eggs today, they would eat well. Back in the house he carefully washed and placed the eggs in a bowl before returning to his seat at the table. While he was out Actor had sliced bread in preparation for toasting and Casino had set the table. They worked well together though it had not started out that way. They had squabbled about who's turn it was until Garrison had slammed his fist on the table to get their attention and then told them they had half an hour to get something to eat and then they were done. Breakfast routinely lasted longer than that now but it was all cooperation and peace. Goniff's specialty was kippers and eggs with toast which was okay with Chief but he preferred Actor's Eggs Benedict. He had never had it before but he liked it. Casino did up fried eggs just like at the restaurant where he had worked. Chief had wanted to do flat bread but figured no one would eat it so he just fried the eggs too. The best breakfasts were when they had sausages or bacon. The smell would fill the kitchen and down the hall. That was the best but unfortunately rare.

As they ate the men would discuss the last mission or what was planned for the upcoming day. It used to be training everyday in one thing or another but as the missions had gone by the Lieutenant had relented and allowed them time to relax.

"Bitte geben Sie die Butter." What had not abated was the language lessons. Chief had balked at first until he had realized that Casino and Goniff were as hopeless as he was. He picked up the butter dish and handed it to Actor. "Die butter," mimicked Chief. He doubted he could ever speak it but he was picking up some of the words.

"Je dois aller en ville pour obtenir des timbres." Three sets of eyes looked to Actor. Seeing no clue they swung to Garrison.

"Ne soyez pas longtemps. Avez-vous besoin d'argent?"

"Actor's always got money," said Casino smugly. A little dig at Actor and points for him. The only word he understood was money but he figured that was enough.

"Tres bon, Casino. Voulez-vous m'accompagner?

"No thanks." Casino never refused a trip to town so it was obvious that he did not understand the question. Actor and Garrison exchanged looks.

"Non merci," suggested Actor as he gave the safecracker a knowing look.

"That's right mate, no mercy." Chief had to smile at Goniff's comment. No mercy was right. Casino had some Italian which was helpful when they were in Italy but he and Goniff were condemned to non speaking parts. No matter where they went Cockney, Apache and Navajo were useless.

"All right, gents, clean up then we'll all go into town. I have to pick up a few things. Out front in, say, "he looked at his watch, " one hour."

Chief waited until the rest had risen then started to gather up the plates. Today was his turn to wash. He had not particularly liked that job when he had worked it in New York but they all took turns. After putting the big pot of water on to heat he began to stacked the dishes in the sink. Casino was on dry duty today so the job would go fast. Goniff was game but he liked to fool around, stacking the dishes as he dried them before putting them away. He claimed you had to make the job fun. Chief knew if the pile of dishes ever fell over there would not be a lot of fun in listening to Garrison yell at them or in picking up all the pieces.

Chief finished up, wiped the table and then went upstairs to get his jacket. The birds were right, it was a good day to be alive.