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Recently ordained minister Noah Kincaid was surfing the Internet, killing time, when quite by chance, he happened to find a church being auctioned on eBay—in some little place he'd never heard of—Virgin River. He laughed at the very idea, but was intrigued. He'd been waiting patiently for an assignment to a church of his own and thought it couldn't hurt to take a look at the place himself. If nothing else, it would be a good excuse to get out of town for a day and see something different. He'd heard Northern California was very beautiful.
The first thing that struck him was the overwhelming beauty of the mountains, redwoods and rivers. The town was a little washed out and the church was a wreck, but there was a peacefulness and simplicity there he couldn't dismiss. Or forget. It seemed uncomplicated, fresh.
No one really noticed him in the little town; the local men he'd seen either had hair shorn in military fashion or ponytails and beards, just like the fishermen Noah had worked with over the years. He fit right in—he wore scuffed boots, his jeans were almost white with wear, ripped here and there, his denim shirt was thin on the elbows and frayed around the collar and cuffs. His black hair was too long and curled over his collar; he planned to get it cut the second he was assigned a church of his own. But for now, he fit right in, looking like any other laborer after a hard day's work. He was fit and toned like the local Virgin River men; years of working on a fishing boat and dockside, dragging nets, hauling in tons of fresh catch will do that.
The church had been easy to locate and he hadn't needed a key to get inside—it was boarded up and appeared to have been abandoned for years, but the side door wasn't locked. The place had been stripped bare and filled with years of trash, probably litter from transients who'd taken shelter there at one time or another. Almost all the windows had been broken before being covered over with plywood. But when he got to the sanctuary, he discovered a stunning stained-glass window, boarded from the outside to keep it safe. It had been left untouched.
Afterward, he had driven the neighborhoods in town, which hadn't taken long, had a cup of coffee at the only eating establishment, snapped a few digital pictures and left. When he got back to Seattle he contacted the woman who was auctioning the church on eBay, Hope McCrea. "That church has been boarded up for years," she said in her gravelly voice. "This town has been without religion a long time."
"You sure the town is in need of religion?" Noah asked her.
"Not entirely sure," she answered. "But it could damn sure use some faith. That church needs to be opened up or razed to the ground. An empty church is bad mojo."
Noah couldn't agree more.
Despite being busy at the college where he taught, Noah couldn't get Virgin River, or that church, out of his mind.
He took the idea of buying the church to the presbytery and found they were already well aware of its existence. He showed them his digital pictures and they agreed, there was great potential. Placing a minister there appealed to them; the population was just the right size to build a congregation and it was the only church in town. But the renovation, not to mention the accoutrements, would put the costs too high. There was no way they had the budget. They thanked Noah sincerely and promised him he would get his own church real soon.
What the presbytery didn't know was that Noah had recently come into some money. To him, a small fortune. He was thirty-five and since the age of eighteen had been slaving and studying. While attending the university, he'd worked on boats, docks and in fish markets out of the Port of Seattle. A year ago his mother had passed and, to his surprise, had left him a hefty portion of her inheritance.
So, he offered to lighten the presbytery's financial burden by taking on the renovation costs of the church as a donation if they would see fit to assign him as the pastor. The proposal was an appealing one for the Presbyterian church.
Before closing the deal, Noah called his closest friend, and the man responsible for talking him into the seminary in the first place. George Davenport thought he'd lost his mind. George was a retired Presbyterian minister who had been teaching for the last fifteen years at Seattle Pacific University. "I can think of a thousand ways for you to throw away that money," George had said. "Go to Las Vegas, put it all on red. Or finance your own mission to Mexico. If those people needed a pastor, they'd go looking for one."
"Funny that church is still standing there, useless, like it's waiting for a rebirth. There must be a reason I happened to see it on eBay," Noah said. "I've never looked at eBay before in my life."
After much debate, George conceded, "If it's structurally sound and the price is right, it might work out. You'd get a big tax write-off with the donated renovation cost, and a chance to serve a small, poor congregation in a hick mountain town that doesn't get cell-phone reception. Sounds perfect for you."
"There is no congregation, George," Noah reminded him.
"Then you'll have to gather one, son. If anyone can do it, you can. You were born to do it, and before you get all insulted, I'm not talking about your DNA. I'm talking about pure talent. I've seen the way you sell fish, I always thought there was a message there. Go—it's what you want. Open your doors and your heart and give it all you've got. Besides, you're the only ordained minister I know who has two nickels to rub together."
So Noah inked the deal with the presbytery and hoped his mother wasn't spinning in her grave. Truth be told, she'd always quietly supported him when, years back, he had been determined as hell to run away from the ministry. She had good reason. Noah's father was a powerful, semi-famous televangelist—and a cold, controlling man. Noah had run away while his mother could not.
If someone had told Noah seventeen years ago, when he fled his father's house at the age of eighteen, that he would one day be a preacher himself, he'd have laughed in their face. Yet here he was. And he wanted that church. That wreck of a church in that peaceful, uncomplicated mountain town.
Several weeks later Noah was in his fifteen-year-old RV, which would be his home for a good long time, towing his twenty-year-old faded-blue Ford truck. En route to Northern California, he called George's office, placing the call from his cell phone before the signal was lost in the mountains and tall trees. "I'm on my way into Virgin River, George."
"Well, boy—how does it feel?" George asked with a deep chuckle in his voice. "Like you pulled off the sweetheart deal of the century, or like you'll be dead broke and out in the street before you know what hit you?"
Noah laughed. "Not sure. I'll be tapped out by the time the church is presentable. If I can't drum up a congregation, I could be back in Seattle throwing fish before you know it," he said, referring to an old job of his working the fish market on Seattle's downtown wharf. He'd literally thrown large fish across the market. It had been like theater and it was where George had discovered him. "I'll get started on the improvements right away and trust the presbytery won't leave me out in the cold if no one shows up to services. I mean, if you can't trust the church…"
That comment was answered with George's hearty laughter. "They're the last ones I'd trust. Those Presbyterians think too much! I know I wasn't keen on this idea at first, Noah, but I wish you well," George said. "I'm proud of you for taking a chance."
"Thanks, George. I'll keep in touch."
"Noah," George said soberly. "Good luck, son. I hope you find what you're looking for."
It was the first of July when Noah rattled into Virgin River and pulled right up to the church. Parked there was a big old Suburban with the wheels jacked up and covered with mud. Standing beside it was a tiny old woman with wiry white hair and big glasses, a cigarette hanging from her lips. She wore great big tennis shoes that didn't look as if they'd ever been white and, although it was summer, she had on a jacket with torn pockets. When he parked and got out of his RV, she tossed the cigarette to the ground and stomped it out. One of Virgin River's stunning beauties, he thought wryly.
"Reverend Kincaid, I presume?" she said.
From the look on her face, Noah assumed she was expecting someone a bit more refined. Maybe someone who dressed in khakis and a crisp white button-down? Shiny loafers? Neatly trimmed hair? Clean shaven at least? His hair was shaggy, his whiskers itchy, and he had a healthy bit of motor oil on his jeans, a result of a stop a hundred miles back when he'd had to work on the RV. "Mrs. McCrea," he answered, putting out his hand.
She shook it briefly, then put the keys in his palm. "Welcome. Would you like a tour?"
"Do I need keys?" he asked. "The building wasn't locked the last time I was here. I looked it over pretty thoroughly."
"You've seen it?" she asked, clearly startled.
"Sure did. I took a run down here before placing a bid on behalf of the Presbyterian church. The door wasn't locked so I helped myself. All the presbytery really needed from you was the engineer's report on the building's structural competence. I gave them lots of pictures."
She pushed her oversize glasses up on her nose. "What are you, a minister or some kind of secret agent?"
He grinned at her. "Did you think the presbytery bought it on faith?"
"I guess I didn't see any other possibility. Well, if you're all set, let's go in to Jack's—it's time for my drink. Doctor's orders. I'll front you one."
"Did the doctor order the smokes, too?" he asked with a smile.
"You're damn straight, sonny. Don't start on me."
"I gotta meet this doctor," Noah muttered, following her.
Hope stopped abruptly, looked at him over her shoulder as she adjusted her jacket and said, "He's dead." And with that she turned and stomped into Jack's bar.
Noah had only been in town a couple of days before the need for cleaning supplies sent him in the direction of Fortuna. The narrow, winding mountain roads led him toward the freeway, and he marveled that he had managed to get his RV to Virgin River at all, especially while towing his truck. He wasn't quite halfway to Fortuna before he had his first lesson in how dramatically different mountain life was from life in the city, the campus and the Seattle wharf.
He spied a motionless animal by the side of the road and by pure coincidence there was a wide space on the shoulder just ahead. He pulled over and got out of his truck. When he was within a few feet, he realized it was a dog; perhaps some family pet. He went closer. Flies were buzzing around the animal and some of its fur looked shiny with blood, but Noah detected a slight movement. He crouched near the dog, whose eyes were open and tongue hanging out of its parted mouth. The animal was breathing, but clearly near death. The condition of the poor beast tore at his heart.
Just then, an old truck pulled up and parked behind Noah's vehicle and a man got out. Noah took him for a farmer or rancher; he wore jeans, boots, a cowboy hat, and walked with a hitch that suggested a sore back. "Got a problem there, bud?" the man asked.
Noah looked at him over his shoulder. "Dog," he said. "Hit by a car, I guess. And a while ago. But it's alive."
The rancher crouched and took a closer look. "Hmmph," he grunted. He stood. "Okay then. I'll take care of it."
Noah waved away the flies and gave the dog's head and neck a stroke. "Easy now—help's on the way." He was still stroking the dog's neck when the man's boots came into view beside him, as well as the business end of a rifle, aimed at the dog's chest. "Might want to move back, son," the man said.
"Hey!" Noah shouted, pushing the rifle away. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to put that poor creature out of its misery," the man said in a tone that indicated he found the question ludicrous. "What else you gonna do?"
"Take it to a vet," Noah said, standing. "Maybe it can be helped!"
"Buddy, look at that dog. It's emaciated, pretty much starved. That animal was half-dead before a car hit it. Wouldn't be right to leave it to lie here, dying." He aimed again.
Again Noah pushed the rifle away. "Where's the nearest vet?" he asked. "I'll take it. If the vet can't help it, he can euthanize the dog without blowing it apart."
The rancher scratched his chin and shook his head. "Nathaniel Jensen is off 36, just this side of Fortuna, but he's a large-animal vet. He's got dogs, though. If he can't help, he can give you the name of someone who can. Or put it down for you. But, buddy, that dog isn't going to make it to the vet."
"How do I get there?" Noah asked.
"Turn left off 36 on Waycliff Road. You'll see a sign for Jensen Stables and Vet Clinic, and Dr. Jensen. It's only a few minutes down the hill." He shook his head again. "This could all be over in thirty seconds."
Noah ignored him and went back to his truck, opening the passenger door. He returned to the animal and lifted it into his arms, which is when he discovered it was a female. The blood was dried and didn't soil him, but flies buzzed around the injury and he was pretty sure he'd end up with maggots on his clothes. He was about halfway to his truck when the rancher said, "Good luck there, buddy."
"Yeah," Noah grumbled. "Thanks."