The Gift

From the Story Arc: The Bearer of Strashnyjj, Strashnyjj News

Previous Story in the Arc: Prologue by Commie Cowgirl (Friday, February 10, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Moonlight by Commie Cowgirl (Sunday, February 12, 2006)

(posted Friday, February 10, 2006)

The week had started so horosho.

Kurt had been secretive for days, fighting to keep a satisfied smile from his face. He puttered around the ranch, whistling old cowboy songs, mending fences, bailing hay, and winking at Oksana whenever he saw her.

He’d been retired from the movie industry for two decades now, though Oksana had seen every one of his films long before meeting him. She could imitate his hip-swivel gun draw flawlessly; when she’d showed him, he belly-laughed for minutes, making her blush until he gasped out that he’d never seen it done better. Kurt was four decades her senior, yet the sparkle in his eye was that of a young cowpoke’s.

They met under the most trying of circumstances. Belladonna Aura had collapsed during a soggy sewer run against an infestation of Banished Pantheon mummies. Her radiation powers went wild, spewing EMP bursts every few minutes like a bomb. Everything surrounding them that relied on electronics fizzled and died… including their comrade’s powered armor, teleporter recall chips, and communicators – everything but Oksana’s Soviet Buffalo Gun and her two six-guns. They shot their way out of the horde of animated husks and emerged into sunlight – and a city gone quiet. Bella’s EMP had shut down every vehicle and machine for miles around.
Oksana caught a whiff of horse manure in the city smells. Before the mission, they’d passed a film set for actor Kurt Taylor’s comeback movie, “A Cowboy In the City”, and she got his autograph. They were mere blocks away from the set. Oksana threw the unconscious Bella over her shoulder and sprinted the three blocks, ignoring the car accidents, arguments, and cries of confusion. At the movie set, the crew checked over their equipment for damage. Kurt stood near his legendary horse, Thunder, giving him a welcome rubdown.

He reacted to the sight of the cowgirl carrying a wounded comrade in the same heroic fashion she’d seen in his movies. He gave her the reins of Thunder, threw Bella over the saddle, and told her to ride hard. It was her greatest dream come true, in the midst of a nightmare.

She galloped through the city streets, over SUVs and sports cars, jumping over fences, weaving between stopped traffic, and clearing sidewalks. Thunder didn’t stop at the steps of the hospital: Oksana rode him right into the lobby, skidding to a halt at the elevator to the special radiation treatment unit with its lead lined walls. Both horse and rider sucked air into their lungs, exhilarated by the dash. Bella was sequestered in the shielded room before her next EMP could take out the hospital’s equipment.

Oksana trotted Thunder back to the movie set, reluctant to give up the majestic horse. She hadn’t ridden since arriving in Paragon, and the separation from her equine friends had been drying her soul out like a dusty creek bed. Kurt welcomed her back with a smile that lit up his lined face.

He took another horse and rode back to his ranch with Oksana. She felt shy around him, like no other man she’d met. Kurt Taylor, at 64, was still handsome, confident, warm and decent. He let her ride in silence and worry for her friend, then gently inquired about her riding, her family’s ranch in Ukraine, even her boots. By the time they reached the ranch they were chattering like old friends. Her kiss goodbye, in front of the summoned taxi, was an offer as much as it was thanks.

Two weeks later she packed up her saddlebags and moved in. When you’re dating an older cowboy, you put the spurs to the horse.

Oksana couldn’t take the suspense. She stomped up to Kurt and spun him around as if in a bar fight. “You are tellink me what is so big secret, you varmint!”

Kurt laughed, hands up in surrender. “Easy there, little lady. There’s a time and a place for –“ She cut him off by seizing his collar and dragging him down for a hard kiss. “For…” She kissed him again, and again. He came up for air. “Okay, okay, I give. It’s in my study.”

Oksana dragged him back to the house. As a Communist, she believed property belonged to the collective; as Kurt’s cowgirl, she wanted to see her present. The collective could wait.

Kurt handed her a plain brown cardboard box, meant to hold clothing. “I was going to wrap it up all pretty for our anniversary, but since you can’t hold your horses –“

“Anniversary? Shto?”

“Our six month anniversary.” He smiled, both kindly and dashing at once. “It’s a blink of an eye to an old coot like me, but for a young filly it’s long enough to mark with a present.”

She grinned at him and lifted an eyebrow.

“Go ahead, open it.”

The cover came off to reveal a pale blue shirt, made of a sturdy fabric. Kurt turned away to open the closet while she puzzled over it. “Is shirt. Werry nice…”

“Take it out of the box.” Kurt cradled a hat box. “Go ahead, honey.”

She lifted the shirt. The cut was familiar, like someone she’d seen before. Under the shirt was a pair of pants in the same pale blue, a red bandanna, and… a black mask.

“Tarnation,” she breathed.

“Back in ’65, they wanted me to take over the Lone Ranger character. The film never got off the ground, but I kept my costumes. I had this one tailored to fit you.”

With a yelp, she jumped into his arms, causing him to drop the hat box, and plastering him with kisses. He laughed, but set her down at once. A cloud came over his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, just a little heartburn from the fajitas.” He made for the bathroom, leaving Oksana balanced between joy and concern.

The discarded hat box had fallen open, and the proud white cowboy hat of the Lone Ranger flopped out. She sat it on her head, where it clung as if it had been made for her – which it probably had. The mask felt cool on her face. She admired herself in the mirror, the 1812 Overture rumbling through her head like a white charger.