Few tourists get into this mountainous crease in northwest Virginia, and those who do are usually lost. A late snowfall lends the scene the intensity of a black-and-white photograph: slush and mud, the clutter of a working farm before spring thaw, and sheep standing motionless in the cold.
A man walks slowly along the fence line, hauling hay bales on a cart. He has a big open face, and a luxuriant red mustache; his soiled parka is torn in half a dozen places. A black and white border collie watches as he unloads the hay, and the young ewes come forward on stiff legs.
The dog crouches, as if to spring, and the man says softly, "That'll do, Pip."
Pip weighs 40 pounds. White paws and white chest give him a certain canine formality; he clearly hangs on the man's words, yet seems closer to the wilderness than the plots of human enterprise in the valley. Try to throw a stick for him, and he'll tear it from your hand.
Pip is only 3 1/2 years old, young for a working border collie; by the end of the year he could earn his master half a million dollars.
The man, Donald McCaig, is 43, about prime for a working novelist. His new book, "Nop's Trials," about a border collie and a sheep farmer, could make him famous next month, if the prepublication reviews and the publicity people are right. It could be one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune in recent publishing history, making McCaig the richest subsistence farmer in Highland County.
In "Nop's Trials," the border collie is stolen, and a taciturn owner spends the rest of the book trying to find him. McCaig's agent speaks of the book's prospects in cadences that every writer dreams of hearing once in his career: "The movie option sold for a substantial five-figure option against a substantial six-figure purchase price. The reprint paperback auction will start with a substantial six-figure floor . . ."
"I don't know what I'm going to do with the money," McCaig says. "Put it in the bank, I guess. The sum total of the movie sale was that Anne and I couldn't sleep the night we found out about it, and I forgot to milk the cow. Money's fine, but I didn't feel very good about myself, forgetting the cow."
The first thing they bought was a bed, after sleeping on a mattress on the floor for 10 years. They took a charter flight to St. Martin for a week, first paying a neighbor to look after the sheep. They had the tractor and the pick-up overhauled.
A dozen years ago, McCaig lived in a fifth floor Manhattan walk-up. He decided to become a writer, turned down a job as creative director for an advertising agency, and left town with the woman who is now his wife. Anne McCaig has slate-colored eyes, and a slight scar on her nose left by a knife slip when she was scraping sheep's feet. She wears a farmer's coveralls, quietly supervising her husband's efforts.
"We knew," she says, "that we didn't want to go to Maine. A lot of our friends had gone up there. By February they were all sleeping together, and drinking cough medicine."
McCaig outfitted a secondhand pickup with a canvas cover, called "the Gazebo." He and Anne wandered through the Alleghenies, looking to settle in a place with access to wilderness, and good water. They knew nothing about sheep, border collies or the South. In Williamsville--"a spot on the road between the 'Stop' and 'Resume Speed' signs"--in one of the poorest, most beautiful counties in America, they found it.
The house, a log cabin with a frame addition, had no plumbing, no heat and no fences. The swaybacked barn leaned into the hill. They bought it and moved in with two male friends from New York.
McCaig stayed inside, writing in a drafty room: "If I went outside and looked at the place, I got anxious."
After their first winter there, they knew they weren't suited for communal life.
"One of our friends was always consulting the 'I Ching,' " says Anne McCaig. "We'd find little piles of coins around the house."
The other man liked macrobiotic food and dipping from a jar of Highland County honey. "I followed him around with a sponge. I had had it when I saw him spreading peanut butter on a peanut."
McCaig tried to learn two things at once: writing and sheep.
They started out with two crippled ewes, bought to keep the grass down, not knowing that sheep won't eat tall grass. The flock grew, and McCaig had to learn to put up a fence. Anne trimmed the sheeps' hoofs, and fed them. The third lambing season was a disaster--about half the lambs lived.
"I wanted to sell them all," McCaig says.
Anne told him, "I'll take over."
Now she is well regarded in the business as A.A. McCaig, raiser of purebred Rambouillets.
Meanwhile, McCaig was becoming a writer. His first novel, "Caleb's, Who's Hotter Than a Two-Dollar Pistol," sold a few thousand copies. He told a neighbor, "Last year we made about as much money writing as we lost on the sheep, and the neighbor said, 'I had the same kind of year, but I didn't do no writing.' "
A year ago, they had to borrow from a neighbor to pay their taxes.
But the big change had already begun when McCaig decided to buy a working dog.
Anne asked him, "Where are you going to find a dog that can type?"
Border collie puppies are so common in sheep country that people have trouble giving them away. McCaig got one, called him Pip, and started training him. He already had enough to do, but, "it became an obsession. I had a real, live E.T.--an alien mind, but definitely a mind."
He entered Pip in the border collie trials at the state fair while Pip was still a puppy.
"I knew it would be a disaster, and it was. But I met other people with dogs and learned a lot."
Now, with his mortgage paid off, McCaig likes to say, "Pip bought the farm."
He almost called the novel "Pip's Trials."
McCaig stands in the snow, about to go down to the lower meadow and bring up the flock for worming. Pip cocks his head when his master talks, watching.
"Border collies predate the British Kennel Club," he says. "They've been bred consistently for 100 years, they're the last working dogs in the world, with some minor exceptions. Bench shows dog shows have ruined the other breeds, like the hunting dogs. Border collies are peasant dogs, and that's protected them."
Pip and his partner, a female border collie named Silk, work in tandem, wired to the same invisible source. They exchange glances, co-conspirators.
"I wanted to have them talk in the book, because they do talk. But it's hard to make a language out of shrugs and eye movements. These are very ritualistic, formal dogs. If they spoke, they might use something like mandarin Chinese, or Elizabethan English."
Thy life is a bore, Nop tells a hunting dog in the novel, tied up far from freedom, and thou art a bore too, with thy rage and no real work to do.
McCaig takes a step, and the dogs streak away from him, black projectiles against the spring snow. He calls and they freeze, watching the huddled flock of ewes at the edge of the river. Behind them rises a cliff overhung with pine trees.
Woolies hungry, says a sheep in "Nop's Trials." Dog. Dog teeth. Dog threat.
McCaig tells Pip, "Away to me." It comes out "Wee to me," a strange sound for Highland County.
"Border collies were trained in Scotland. They have the Scots commands in their genes. At the dog trials, the owners wear those three-piece western suits, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats, but they carry Scots shepherd's crooks over their arms, and talk to their dogs in Scots accents."
Pip circles to the right, flanking the ewes.
"Thar!" McCaig shouts, and the dog freezes.
McCaig gives a low whistle. Pip crouches, behind the sheep now. They turn, revealing pink and blue dye on their rumps, left by the rams' marking harnesses used so the breeders can tell who fathered whom. The soft pastels glow in the soft, gray light.
"Come by," he tells Silk, and she circles off to the left. The sheep come forward in unison like . . . well, like sheep.
Pip turns, and goes back for the straggler.
"It's easy to get them to obey. You have to train a dog to think. I could open a window in the house now and tell Pip to go and get the sheep. He'd jump three fences and bring them back, if I could think of a way to train him to open and close the gates."
Anne waits in the pen with a bottle of worming pills, and a pair of long-handled forceps. Pip and Silk ease the sheep through the gate.
"They're behaving," says McCaig. "Some days, there's nothing in here but jumping sheep and dog tooth."
He grabs two fistfuls of fleece, holding a ewe while Anne carefully inserts the pills between its lips. In the beginning, they wormed without forceps to force the pill down the throat.
"We came out an hour later," she recalls, "and there were orange pills all over the snow."
The dogs are soaked; so are the sheep and the people. Scraps of cloud hang about Bullpasture Mountain; there's no sound at all.
"Spring," Anne says. "It'll never come."
McCaig fires up the four-wheel drive 1950 Dodge Power Wagon that he rebuilt after paying $300 and dragging it out of a field. Now it groans up the driveway backward like a tank. The power winch mounted on the front bumper will be used to crank the visitors' car, stuck in the muddy yard, up to the road.
"It's my only prestige vehicle," he says, in a county with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the nation. Of 228 farms, he says, 219 grossed less than $10,000 last year. "We were one of them."
The dogs watch the towing operation skeptically.
"I'm a workaday writer. This time I'm going to be a superstar. I want to ask the publishers where they were when I needed them. When I tried to sell the 12-page outline, nobody wanted it. Reader's Digest said they loved the dogs and hated the people, or maybe it was the other way around. The Brits said, 'Gee, sorry.' "
McCaig resettles a wool cap, low over fierce red eyebrows; dogs have gone back to the house.
"I'm not a popular writer. My last book sold 8,000 copies, my next book will probably sell 8,000 copies. It'll be nice, when this is over, to join the ranks of the formerly famous."