A/N: This story is based on the 70s TV show. It follows my previous two. You can catch onto what is happening without reading them, but if you're interested in any backstory, that's where you'll find it. Some of the canon from the TV show (in case you've been busy since 1979, or...gulp...weren't born): Fenton Hardy lost his wife when Frank and Joe were very young and Aunt Gertrude moved in to help raise them. Callie Shaw is Fenton's office assistant, but was never romantically involved with Frank. Chet Morton was a character in the series, but Iola was not. Vanessa Bender does not exist since the show pre-dates the "Casefiles" incarnation of the Hardy Boys. Frank had a thing for Nancy Drew during the entire series and Joe was unattached (except for the guest star of the week romance the writers always included. In short, the boy got around. LOL).
My self-indulgent series of stories begins with Season 3 of the show, since I could never swallow the Justice Department hiring two teenagers as special agents. I have also aged Frank and Joe to 23 and 22, respectively. As per my other stories, this one is also completely written and I will post a new chapter every other day. Thanks to my betas, Kenna and JD for all their help! Oh, and my sincere apologies to Glen Larson Productions and Universal Studios. The TV show belongs to them. Thanks for reading!
"Hang onto his top leg, or he's gonna kick you where you don't want to be kicked, son!"
Joe Hardy glanced back at the white-haired cowboy giving the order, then held the calf's rear legs more firmly, while trying not to completely lose his balance in the process.
The cowboy on the other end of the calf had somehow managed to hold both the animal's front legs and head with very little effort. Joe sighed. He was positive he looked as incompetent as he felt.
Two additional cowboys swept in with syringes and a branding iron. In twenty seconds it was over.
"Okay, let him loose and jump back," the white-haired cowboy said. "They're young, but they are strong."
Joe did as he was told, and the little calf scampered away to be let out of the work area. Joe watched as he found his mother among the mooing cows in the holding pen and smiled. The cowboy was right. Those little stinkers were stronger than they looked.
"All right, son, you're next," the cowboy gestured, looking toward Joe's older brother, Frank.
Joe moved out of the way as Frank stepped forward. He gazed around and wondered how telling his girlfriend, Emily, that he would help her aunt and uncle figure out who'd been vandalizing their Oklahoma cattle ranch had gotten him smack dab in the middle of a calf-branding session.
He chuckled. This place could not be more different than Bayport. The wide open skies, the huge pastures, and the cattle. Lots and lots of cattle.
Joe sniffed the air and realized he was standing next to another pile of manure. Cattle did not smell good. Not to mention, they were loud. Louder than he ever imagined they could be. He was going to hear that chorus of mooing ringing in his ears all night long.
"Just hold onto his legs, right?" Frank asked, as another calf was let into the pen.
"You got it," the cowboy said with a nod, as the little calf approached.
Frank managed to get him to the ground and hold on, as the other cowboys repeated the vaccinating and branding.
Joe turned to where the ranch hands were moving more calves from the holding pen into the chute and pushing them forward. These guys worked hard. Joe couldn't imagine doing this every day. He already knew he was going to be sore tomorrow.
He shook his head. And he actually thought he was in pretty good shape. Until he'd arrived here, that is.
The cowboy directing the operation took off his gloves. He extended his hand first to Frank and then to Joe. "Well, for city boys, you ain't half bad. Thought maybe Ed had lost his mind when he told me he was sendin' you two to help, but I think you're gonna work out fine. Name's John, by the way."
"I'm Frank Hardy, and this is my brother, Joe," Frank said with a smile.
John nodded. "Great. Well, why don't you go get yourselves some chaps from the barn and a couple of hats and come back so we can finish these calves."
He gestured to a building not far from them and Joe headed in that direction with Frank close behind him.
"What do you think?" Joe asked his brother as they walked down the dirt path.
"I think we're going to get our butts kicked," Frank said.
"Yeah, no kidding." Joe walked another few feet, then said, "I hope we have enough time to try and figure out who's been sabotaging this ranch in between all our other chores."
Frank shook his head. "It might be tough." He reached for a pair of chaps hanging from a hook on the barn wall as he entered. "This is going to be interesting."
Nancy Drew looked around the spacious cabin and smiled. It was perfect. She wasn't really sure how much "personal" time she was going to be able to have with Frank on this case, but the accommodations certainly exceeded all her expectations. An entire cabin for the four of them? She couldn't have come up with anything better. "This is gorgeous," she said to her hostess. "Has it always been here?"
"No," Susan Fairchild said. "We just finished it, actually." She opened the wood blinds covering the living room windows. "Our plan is to build five more so guests can come and have a hands-on ranching and farming experience."
"Wow, Aunt Susan," Emily Clark said, as she put her suitcase down. "I'm really impressed."
Susan smiled, and pushed a loose strand of gray hair behind her ear. "Well, I hope it will be okay. I'm sorry that the main house is such a mess. Renovations and all."
She walked forward. "Let me give you the tour. This, of course, is the living area. The kitchen is over there." She gestured to the right, where a spacious kitchen opened into the den.
"We stocked the fridge for you, but we really hope you'll eat your meals in the farmhouse with us." Susan opened a door off the living room. "This is one of the bedrooms. The second one is on the other side of the fireplace."
Nancy stepped inside and gazed around appreciatively at the queen-sized bed, piled high with pillows and a fluffy down comforter, and the stone fireplace on the wall opposite it. She smiled slyly, already planning out the fun she and Frank would have here. It had been almost a month since they'd spent any time at all together, and she'd missed him even more than she thought she would.
"There's a full bath attached to each bedroom, and a little patio through those sliding doors." She gave the girls an anxious look. "I'm so sorry about this. It doesn't seem right."
"What Aunt Susan?" Emily sounded concerned.
Susan bit her lip. "Well, having the boys stay in this cabin with you. I mean, it does have the two bedrooms, but I doubt they'll want to share a bed with each other."
Nancy caught Emily's warning head shake from across the room and swallowed the comment she was about to make.
"Do you think they'll mind terribly sleeping on the couches?" Susan asked.
"Um, no. I'm sure they'll be fine with it," Emily said.
Nancy bent her head down and disguised the laughter that bubbled up unexpectedly with a cough. She hoped it was convincing, but Emily was glaring at her.
"Oh, good. They're very comfortable couches, and they're quite large."
"It'll be fine, Aunt Susan. I promise," Emily assured her.
"I don't know, Em," Susan said. "Your mother trusts me to take care of you, and if she knew I had you staying in the same house with two young men..."
"Don't worry about it." Emily smiled. "Mom really likes Joe."
Susan sighed. "Well, if there's any problem, or you or Nancy don't feel comfortable being alone with those boys, you let me know. We'll work something out." She looked over at Nancy. "Are you all right, my dear?"
"F-fine," Nancy choked out, still trying to swallow her laughter.
"Oh, it's probably all the dust they're kicking up out there with the cattle. Let me get you a drink." Susan headed to the kitchen, and Nancy turned to Emily.
"Is she serious?"
"Very," Emily assured her. "She's a little on the prim and proper side. She'd absolutely have a heart attack right on the spot if she knew that my mother had no problems with me and Joe and...our relationship. So you'd better be on your best behavior."
Nancy grinned at her. "Then this is going to be a very interesting case. Especially when I tell Frank he's sleeping on the couch."
"That's mean," Emily said. She looked at Nancy with a gleam in her eye. "Let's do it."
Frank and Joe headed back to the calf pens, wearing chaps, gloves and cowboy hats.
"Why do I feel just this side of ridiculous?" Joe asked.
"Because we are the furthest thing from cowboys on this ranch besides Emily and Nancy."
Frank laughed, as he reached the metal gate on the pen. He hoped he didn't look as idiotic as he felt. But he was pretty sure he did.
He stood with Joe and watched several of the other cowboys work the calves for a few minutes. Emily's uncle, Ed, approached them from the dusty path that ran alongside the pens.
"That it's a lot harder to be a cowboy than those John Wayne movies make it look," Joe replied.
Ed chuckled and spat in the dirt. "Yep."
"So," Frank began, "what can you tell us about the sabotage problems you've been having?"
Ed squinted at them in the bright noontime sunshine. "Probably not more than Susan's already let on." He shrugged. "I don't think it's really that big of a deal, but she's nervous."
"Do you really believe it's sabotage?" Frank asked.
Ed looked on as his cowboys roped a calf around the neck. "Could just be a string of accidents." He pushed his hat back on his head. "Listen boys, I don't know what you two can do out here to solve our problems, but you sure are welcome company. We love our Emily, and we're always happy to have her and her friends visit."
He climbed over the fence and jumped down into the pen. "So you feel free to poke around all you like and we'll be happy to teach you all about ranchin' in the meantime." He walked into the middle of the pen then turned around. "You comin?"
Frank looked at his brother who grinned at him.
"After you," Joe gestured.
"Did your aunt give you many details about what's been going on here?" Nancy asked, as she and Emily strolled along the path away from the cabin.
"Not really," Emily said. "She mentioned some of the equipment being vandalized and cattle let out of their pens. Things like that."
"Vandalized? What do you mean, exactly?"
"Um, I think she said something about a tractor engine being smashed, and some tires on a few pickup trucks being slashed."
"Okay, well there's no way those could be considered accidents." Nancy was thoughtful. It had to be someone who had access to the ranch. Someone who wouldn't look suspicious on the property or in any of the outbuildings. "Does she know why anyone would want to do this?"
"No," Emily replied. "That's the problem. This seemed to come up out of the blue. I mean, this ranch has been in my uncle's family for a long time."
Nancy nodded. "Then that's something we need to investigate. Why is this happening now?" She stopped and put her hand on Emily's arm. Not ten feet in front of her was Frank, leaning against the side of a cattle pen. He brushed a gloved hand across his forehead, tilting his cowboy hat back slightly. Nancy's heart skipped a beat. "Do you see what I see?"
Emily smiled as she looked into the cattle pens. "If you mean do I see Frank and Joe playing cowboy, then yes."
Nancy inhaled sharply. "Are they wearing...chaps?" Heaven help her. Frank turned around to loosen the rope around a calf and she felt a little dizzy at the sight. His cute bottom was made for wearing jeans and chaps.
Emily giggled. "Yes, they are. And very nicely, I might add."
"Be still my raging hormones." Nancy squeezed Emily's arm. "Let's go get a closer look at this."
The girls sauntered over to the cattle pens, and Nancy watched as Emily easily climbed up onto the metal bar fence and swung her legs over the top so she was sitting on it. Nancy wasn't sure she could accomplish that move gracefully, so she stepped onto the bottom bar and leaned her elbows over the top one instead.
Joe looked up with a smile when he saw Emily and Nancy approach. He also noticed that as soon as the cowboys saw the girls, the wolf whistles and teasing remarks began. He rolled his eyes.
"Hey, hey, now cool it, guys!" Ed called out. "This here's my niece, Emily and her friend Nancy. They're going to be stayin' with us for awhile, and I'd appreciate it if you'd all just put your eyes back in your heads and quit leering."
"Aw, you're no fun, boss," one of the cowboys called back.
Joe turned around as a handsome blond cowboy with piercing blue eyes hollered out to Emily from across the pen.
Emily giggled. "Hi, Tim. How are you doing?"
"Great," Tim grinned at her as he neck-roped a calf on the first try. "How 'bout yourself, sweetie?"
Joe turned to stare at his girlfriend. What the hell? Who was this jackass and why was he calling Emily "sweetie"? And why did she look like she was enjoying it?
"Hey, Hardy! You better get that calf or he's gonna get you," Tim shouted.
Joe turned his attention back to grabbing the calf's leg, while Tim rode his horse over to the girls. Joe positioned himself so he could see exactly what Mr. Clint Eastwood was going to do next.
"Howdy, Miss," Tim greeted Nancy, lifting his hat from his blond hair. "Name's Tim Carlson."
Nancy was all smiles. "Nancy Drew," she replied.
"Well, Nancy Drew, it sure is nice to have you here." Tim grinned at her. "Our little Emily's sure got herself one gorgeous friend."
Nancy turned ten different shades of red and bowed her head. Joe shook his in disgust.
Tim winked at her. "And Jake over there agrees with me."
Joe nudged Frank and pointed as Nancy looked up across the pen where a handsome dark-haired cowboy smiled and nodded to her.
Joe's attention quickly switched back to his own girlfriend as Tim scooped Emily onto his horse in front of him. "Come on darlin', you can help me rope some calves."
Emily giggled and adjusted herself on his lap.
"What the hell is going on here?" Joe hissed to Frank as he let the little calf up off the ground.
Frank chuckled. "Looks like we're in the 'Wild West', Joe. I guess we'll have to fight for our women," he joked.
"Yeah, well nobody told me I was going to have to deal with 'Captain Biceps' out here," Joe said, and gestured to Tim who was easily roping a calf with one hand while holding Emily firmly in the saddle with the other.
"Relax, Joe. Emily loves you."
Joe smirked. "Well, I hope Nancy loves you just as much."
Frank turned his gaze to where Jake was leaning against the fence, chatting with a still blushing Nancy.
"Yeah, me too," Frank replied.
Joe turned his attention back to the new calf at hand, as he and Frank held him to the ground for his vaccines.
Twenty minutes later, Joe spotted Emily by the side of the barn. He took off his gloves and headed toward her, determined to figure out exactly who Cowboy Tim was and what Emily's relationship with him had been. He was hoping there was an off chance that Tim was her cousin, but he doubted it.
"Hey," Joe called out.
She turned as he approached.
"Remember me? The love of your life?"
She smiled at him, then reached out and hooked her finger into the front of his chaps. Pulling him forward, she leaned up against him until her mouth was inches from his. "Do you know that you are an incredibly sexy cowboy?"
"Really?" he replied. "I didn't even think you noticed I was out there."
She gave him a little kiss on the lips. "I noticed."
"Hmmm." Joe pushed his hat back. "Because it seemed to me like you were a little too preoccupied with the 'Lone Ranger.'"
She giggled and slid her hands around his waist. "If you're referring to Tim, I've known him since I was a little kid."
"Yeah, well, you're not a kid anymore," he replied. "And Tim has definitely noticed."
She giggled again and kissed him on the cheek. "Doesn't matter," she murmured.
"And why not?"
Emily pulled him closer. "Because he's no Joe Hardy."
Joe's heart melted as he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her deeply. She ran her hands up the back of his plaid shirt and he groaned. How on earth did he get so lucky? His cowboy hat fell off his head, as he lifted Emily up and twirled her around.
She pulled away laughing, and touched him lightly on the tip of his nose. "Got that, 'Mr. Love of My Life?'"
For a response, Joe bent his head down and kissed her again. "Can I ask one thing, baby?"
"Stay out of his saddle."