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  1. DEDICATION: You’re about to hear a very private and personal true story involving one of the greatest entertainers in the world: John Denver. It shows that above and beyond John’s incredible celebrity, he was first and foremost a caring and loving man. This story is dedicated to all those who care, who “believe”, and whose hearts are cradled within the spirit of Christmas. At the story's end, I'll share a secret that no one knows. The Littlest Cowboy’s Christmas -Michael Chandler aka Kincade You remember one Christmas most of all. Maybe it was a gift you once received. Maybe a surprise visit from an old friend. You’ve enjoyed many, but this one was different. This one is mine. Many years ago, my wife and I lived on a small horse ranch in Little Woody Creek, just outside Aspen Colorado. My son Preston, now 42 years old with a family and two beautiful little girls of his own, was only about 3 or 4. My daughter Melissa, now 38, wasn’t yet born. During the winters, we’d hook up a snowplow to the front of our farm tractor. I’d bundle up Preston, plop him on my lap, and the two of us would chug up and down Little Woody pushing snow this way and that. Not because we had to. But because the two of us would feel so good on those freezing winter days, snuggled together, giggling, singing, and shoving snow around. We felt quietly important, tackling all those drifts, making paths, blazing trails, passing livestock with their flared nostrils throwing shafts of steam like medieval dragons, coming home to Jackie hours later with rosy cheeks and tall tales. During one early December, Little Woody Creek received several feet of fresh snow. Preston and I brewed up our hot cocoa, climbed onto our tractor’s steel seat and chugged up some untracked, snow-choked road. We didn’t know where it went. Only that it was waiting for us, and our tractor. At the end stood a snowbound home and an old green jeep parked outside. As our tractor pushed this way and that, and our laughter cut the crystallized air, a rugged-looking cowboy came out of the house. He walked up to us and asked, “Did somebody hire you to do this?” “Nope.” “Then why are you doing it?” he asked. “Cause its fun!” A wide smile crept onto the stranger’s face. He walked up to us both, stretched out his hand to shake mine. And so I did. I shook hands with one of the five best friends I’ve ever had in my life. “The name’s Joe” he said. “Joe Henry.” He had jet black hair and mustache, a chiseled face and well worn jeans topped off with a faded work shirt. He looked like he’d just come off a six week cattle drive. Not tired. Far from it. He looked alive and vibrant. And very rugged. Joe was a quiet sort. Never bragged. Very different. I would find out over the years that Joe is singularly driven to fulfill his own personal destiny, regardless of what others think of his reasons or motivations. A solitary man, nearly always alone, but never lonely. Preston and I asked what he was doing in this snowbound house. “Writing songs,” Joe said. “And books. And cowboy poetry.” Joe had been a miner and a boxer and a hockey player and a steamship sailor and a ditch digger and a real live buckaroo. We found out that his appaloosa stud Lefty was stabled in an old barn just up the road from our own home. Christmas was coming. And as it approached, Joe walked up to our house one day. He asked if Preston and I would like to come up to the barn Christmas Eve, and help him celebrate the season with his horse Lefty. Joe said he was making Lefty a Christmas carrot and oats pie, and that another friend was bringing his boy too. About Preston’s age. Said the other fella was a country boy, could play a guitar some, and that we could all sing a carol or two. So Christmas Eve arrived, and Preston and I went. The barn wasn’t more than a quarter mile from our house, so with a kiss from my wife, the two of us donned our winter coats, and walked up there in the moonlight, the frozen snow crunching beneath of soles of our boots. Joe greeted us the moment we reached the barn, sliding a stall door open so we could enter. It was a working barn. No concrete, no offices, no steel, no insulation, no electricity. Just sweet hay covering the dirt floor, a loft filled with the summer’s harvest, wooden pens and high ceilings crisscrossed by rough-sawn rafters. In the center, Joe arranged a half dozen hay bales on which to sit. Next to them stood a small evergreen tree. It had wax candles perched on its boughs, popcorn strings and a tin-foil star that Joe had made. One present rested beneath: Lefty’s Christmas carrot and oats pie. The fella with the guitar was there. He rose to greet Preston and me. His son stood at his side, no bigger than my own boy. He warmly introduced himself, but didn’t have to. I recognized him immediately. We all picked a hay bale and sat down. The candles flickered on the tree, throwing warm and darting shadows throughout the barn. Joe poured us each a cup of hot cocoa, and offered a plain Christmas cookie. Lefty peered from his stall, his shaggy head hanging over the gate, huge dark eyes watching us. I felt like the stallion knew why we were there, and what Christmas meant. As we toasted Lefty, as we toasted each other, the fella with the guitar began to play. We all sang Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls and Frosty the Snowman. We all laughed, we all hooted, we all forgot most of the second verses. Counting the livestock, less than six of us experienced something I had never felt before. True peace. Boundless joy. Utter humility. Friendship. And the meaning of Christmas. Finally, Joe got up and walked over to the tree, bending down to carefully pick up Lefty’s pie. As he turned and walked to the stall, the fella with the guitar began to softly hum Silent Night. Joe offered the pie to Lefty, and the horse began to eat. The barn was filled with only two sounds: Lefty’s slow and muffled crunch of those crisp carrots, and the guitar fella’s soft humming of Silent Night. I felt like I was in heaven. We all did. Lefty finished about the same time as the song, and we all stood there with glistening eyes and deep personal thoughts. We looked at each other, and Joe spoke. “Merry Christmas” was all he said. We all shook hands and said goodbye. Preston and I reopened the barn door, waved, and began our return walk home under a sky full of a trillion shining stars, each one brighter than the next. We didn’t say anything as we walked hand in tiny hand. We both know that what had happened was very special. Very important. Maybe even more than pushing snow around with our little tractor. When we got to the front door of our home, Preston looked up at me, tugging at my sleeve. “Who was the man with the guitar, Daddy?” Though known throughout the world by millions of people who adored him, his music, the Country Roads and Rocky Mountain Highs of his voice, it wasn’t important I mentioned his last name. “It’s John, Preston. The guitar fella’s name is John.” But that night, he and his young son were just another couple of cowboys, sharing Christmas Eve with a few friends, and an appaloosa horse named Lefty. Now, the secret: At the height of John's career, he would host Christmas specials on TV. You may have seen them yourself. At the end of each show, he would have the set decorated as an old barn. Hay bales, straw on the floor, a Christmas tree with a small round object at its base that no one could quite make out. John would sing to the children, and they to him. He would end the show in that scene, singing Silent Night. Though John never told anyone, he was reenacting that night in Little Woody Creek... a magical evening experienced many years ago this coming Saturday night, by 3 men, 2 little boys, and an appaloosa horse named Lefty. Merry Christmas from Josephine and Kincade
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