Chapter 1 - Ride 'Em Cowboy Ranch Camp

July 1998

"Wake up, Chris, we're almost there."

Chris blinked his eyes open and looked out the window of the car as his dad turned onto a dirt road. A large wooden sign read "Welcome to Ride 'Em Cowboy Ranch Camp." Underneath it were several smaller signs – "Private Drive" "Speed Limit 10" "Caution – Horses Crossing".

Gazing up at the towering redwoods that lined the road, Chris felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation about what the next two weeks would bring. Would he miss his family? Would he make friends? Would he fall off his horse?

Years later, when Chris looked back on his 8-year-old self, that first week at camp all seemed like a blur. Yes, he had missed his family, but not too badly. Yes, he had made friends, but no one who he thought about much once the week was over. And no, he hadn't fallen off his horse, though he'd come pretty close a couple of times.

It wasn't until his second week at Ride 'Em Cowboy Ranch Camp that Chris's life changed forever.

Since he was the only one from Shetland Cabin who was staying on for another week, Chris had spent the weekend with the handful of older boys who had remained at camp. They had been friendly enough, but Chris didn't feel like he really fit in. As Sunday afternoon approached, he was looking forward to meeting the other boys his age who would be moving into his cabin.

Chris was sitting on his lower bunk when a little boy with curly hair and a big smile burst through the door and bounded over to him. "Hi! Can I have the top bunk?" the boy asked.

"Um, sure," Chris said.

"Darren, honey, it's polite to introduce yourself first," said a woman's voice. Chris looked behind the new boy and saw a man and a woman whom he assumed to be the boy's parents.

"Oh, sorry," said the boy, holding out his hand. "I'm Darren. What's your name?"

"Chris."

Darren grabbed Chris's hand and shook it solemnly, looking back at his parents for approval. Then he grinned at Chris and said, "Hey, is your last name Darren?"

Chris shook his head in bewilderment.

"Too bad," Darren said. "Cause my last name's Criss. That would have been totally awesome if your name was Chris Darren, since my name's Darren Criss. We'd be like name brothers. But we can still be bunk brothers, since you're gonna let me share your bunk, right?"

"Right," said Chris, smiling back.

"Cool. Hey, where are your parents?"

"They're at home with my little sister. My dad brought me up last weekend, and my mom's coming to pick me up next weekend."

"Wow – so that means you've already been here a week? You must know everything! Can you show me around?"

Chris looked over to Matthew, the counselor, who'd been sitting quietly on his own bunk watching the whole exchange. "Can I?" he asked.

"Well, I have to stay here to wait for the other campers. But if Darren's parents don't mind keeping an eye on you, then it's okay with me."

"We'd be happy to have Chris give us a tour," Darren's father told Matthew.

"Great!" said Darren, grabbing Chris's hand again and pulling him to his feet. "I can't wait to see the horses!"

That was the start of the best week of Chris's young life. Darren's enthusiasm was contagious. And the way Darren looked up to him as someone who already knew the ins and outs of camp life gave Chris a sense of pride he'd never felt before.

Chris began his tour by taking Darren and his parents to the corral. "These are just the horses the counselors and instructors ride," he explained. "Most of the camp horses are out in pasture 'til tomorrow. That's when you'll get matched up with your own horse for the week."

"Are they all this big?" asked Darren, sounding a little worried.

"No, there are some ponies, too. But just because we're the youngest campers doesn't mean we'll get matched up with the ponies. Some of those ponies can be harder to control than the bigger horses. Last week I rode Clarence, and he's one of the biggest horses here, but he's really easy to ride because he's really good and always did whatever I asked him to do. And he never stepped on my foot, which some of those ponies were doing to the other boys."

"Did their feet get broken?" Daren asked, now sounding more than just a little worried.

"No, just bruised a little. Don't worry, I'll show you how to work around your horse to make sure you don't get stepped on."

Darren smiled at him gratefully, and Chris's heart gave a funny little lurch.

"Come on," Chris said, tugging at Darren's hand, which he realized with surprise was still held in his own. "Let's go over to the pavilion. I bet it's almost time for Uncle Mike to give his welcome speech."

"Your uncle works here?" asked Darren, impressed.

"No, he's not really my uncle. He just wants everyone here to call him Uncle Mike, 'cause he says we're all like one big family. I guess he's kind of like the boss, but he's really cool."

Chris led Darren and his parents to the pavilion, where they found seats at a picnic table near the front. Even after they sat down, Darren kept hold of Chris's hand. Chris found himself thinking more about his new friend than about the words Uncle Mike was saying, or the counselors and instructors he was introducing. When Darren finally let go of his hand to clap along with everyone else, Chris was surprised to find that the presentation was over.

All around, boys were saying goodbye to their parents. Darren hugged his dad, then his mom. Chris didn't realize he looked sad until Darren turned to him with a concerned expression.

"It kind of sucks that you don't have someone to hug goodbye, huh? But guess what's even better? You can hug me, and then not even have to say goodbye," Darren said, throwing his arms around Chris and holding on tightly.

Chris was taken aback for a moment. He wasn't used to being hugged by other boys. But in a moment he relaxed against Darren, squeezing back.

"Thanks," Chris said, when they finally broke apart.

"That's what friends are for, right?" Darren replied with a grin.

For the rest of the week, Chris and Darren were inseparable. Whatever they were doing – riding, eating, singing songs around the campfire – they were always together. By the time Saturday rolled around, it came as a shock to Chris to realize that he and Darren were about to go their separate ways.

When their parents arrived to pick them up, both boys immediately began pleading to be allowed to come back the following year for the entire summer. After much negotiation, and promises ranging from keeping their rooms clean, to eating all of their vegetables, to completing their homework without complaining, they convinced their parents to register them for three weeks of camp together the following summer.

With promises to write to each other, one last hug, and a few tears, Chris and Darren finally said goodbye.

End Notes: I wasn't planning to publish this here, but I decided to give it a shot to see if it's something you're interested in. This is a completed story, 41 chapters long, with the first seven being KidFic and the rest taking place once they've turned 18. If you'd like to read more, please let me know in a review.