No company's more hateful than your own

You dodge and give yourself the slip; you seek

In bed or in your cups from care to sneak

In vain: the black dog follows you and hangs

Close on your flying skirts with hungry fangs.

Conington J (transl.) (1863) The satires, epistles, and Art of Poetry of Horace (London: George Bell & Sons), p.90. Horace (65–8 BC)

Sometimes, in some places, they weren't seeking anything, weren't chasing a dream, had no evening bed in mind. Sometimes they were just driving and wondering what the next town would be and if there would be jobs for two drifters who loved moving more than staying. It wasn't always easy getting casual work, but in the end there was always someone who was glad of two pairs of hands with no strings attached.

Right now they were somewhere in the Midwest, somewhere where the land stretched out to the horizon and blended into the sky like two galaxies in a loving collision. Sometimes Buz looked out at the road ahead and felt like when they reached the edge they would just drop a gear and pull up into the sky – but that never happened. The road always curved on, always dropping just over the edge of the world, running down to some place or another – and sooner or later something would cross their path to make life interesting again.

They first saw it out ahead of them, a speck far down the road, something dark and moving with steady purpose. The sun was setting in the west and the creature was in the west too, a blurred spot against the slanting light, too low to be a man, to swift to be a child.

The Corvette purred closer and Buz shaded his eyes with his hand, cutting out the low fingers of evening light.

'Hey, it's a dog,' he said curiously.

Tod's eyebrows rose. 'What's a dog doing all the way out here? We're miles from anywhere.'

He looked to the left and the right as he drove. The land was a place of shallow undulations and blowing grass and not much else but a few stands of trees every now and then. There were no people, no rivers, no other roads. There was no one to take care of a dog out here.

Buz shrugged, watching the dog through his shaded eyes. 'There was a dame back in Hell's Kitchen – old Mrs Kiedrowski – she used to shudder every time the neighbour's black dog put its nose into her baker's store. Said it was like death coming over her. A bad omen.'

'An omen of what?' Tod laughed acerbically. 'I thought that was supposed to be black cats?'

Buz shook his head, remembering the real fear in Mrs Kiedrowski's eyes. 'You know. The dark hound. The incubus on your chest. The unknown threat. You're the college graduate – I thought you'd be the one who knew all that jazz.'

Tod laughed again. 'I've never been big on superstition. It's just a dog,' he said, gesturing as they drew closer. 'Just a poor old dog, making its way somewhere. Look,' he said, 'He's limping, poor old fella.'

Buz peered forward again and saw it too – the dog picking up its front paw and hardly letting it touch the road. It was keeping up a good pace, considering. He pressed his lips together in concern, looking from the dog to Tod and back again.

'Hey, maybe we should stop,' he said. 'Just to see it's all right.'

'If it was up to you, we'd pick up every orphan and stray on the road,' Tod said, but all the same he turned the wheel a little as they drew up to the creature, pulling the car out and dropping his speed so that they were travelling alongside. The dog kept running, its left front paw barely touching the ground, its tongue hanging out and its dark eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead.

Buz draped his hand over the side of the car. 'Hey, buddy,' he said in a low voice, tapping his fingers lightly on the door.

The dog snapped him a look, and then turned away again, disinterested. Buz reached down between his feet and brought out a flask.

'Hey, old fella,' he said, shaking the container so the water splashed inside.

This time the dog looked for longer. Tod let the car roll to a stop and the dog stopped too. Buz opened the door cautiously, for, tired as it was, the dog was big and powerful looking. Its long black hair was matted and dusty, but he had no illusions that its teeth would not be effective.

The dog sat down, resting its haunches on the hot road, and Buz knelt too, pouring a little water into the palm of his hand.

'Here, fella,' he said. 'Have a drink.'

The dog drank as if it had not seen water for days. Buz looked up at Tod, concerned.

'I think we should take it in to the next town,' he said. 'I mean, there might be some place we can take it there. A pound or a – a friendly veterinarian. Someone who can take care of it.'

Tod looked left and right up the road and then got out of the car himself, coming around to kneel before the dog.

'Hey, old boy,' he said, stroking a hand down the dog's chest, making tentatively for that lame front paw. 'Let's have a look.'

The dog whimpered a little but it let Tod lift its paw from the ground and look at the pad.

'There,' Tod said in triumph, drawing something from between the toes. 'Like Androcles and the lion,' he said, holding up a long, dark thorn. 'You – er – have heard of Androcles and the lion, street urchin as you are?' he prodded mischievously.

'Yeah, I've heard of Androcles and the lion,' Buz nodded. He could see the words of the story in his mind as he spoke, written in fading print on a yellowing page. 'Gratitude is the sign of noble souls,' he quoted as the dog licked at Tod's hand. 'All that jazz.'

'Well, well, well,' Tod grinned. 'You listened in class after all.'

Buz laughed. 'Actually it was that Mrs Kiedrowski – the lady I told you about. When I was seven she gave me a book of Aesop's Fables. I mean, it was only an old, battered thing. Her own kid had grown out of it. But she gave it to me. It was mine, you know. I used to read that every night.'

'Well, there's one thing,' Tod said, looking the dog up and down again. 'Our lion's not a boy – she's a girl. Her teats are engorged. Looks like she must have pups.'

'Oh, geez,' Buz said, shaking his head, imagining a nest of puppies out here somewhere with a limping, bedraggled mother who could barely look after them. 'Well, we can't take her to any pound or vet surgery, then. First we need to find the pups.'

Tod gave him a long-suffering look. 'One dog in the middle of the prairie, and we have to happen on it and save it, huh?' he asked.

'Yeah,' Buz nodded decisively. 'That's right. It's called karma, see. We help the dog, and something helps us. We don't help the dog – '

He looked up at Tod and watched and waited. They were equal partners in this journey, but he always ended up asking Tod for permission in some way or another over things like this. Things like chasing stray dogs across the prairie and taking stray dogs in his car. Those wheels were Tod's wheels, and he could drive off into the sunset if he wanted to.

'Okay, we'll help the dog,' Tod said eventually. He put his hand to the animal's chin, looking it straight in its dark eyes. 'It's your call, dog. Lead us where you will.'

'You think she understands you?' Buz asked with a smile – but the dog got up and looked first at Tod and then at Buz – and then started walking purposefully down the road again.

They crawled along the road at a snail's pace – or at a dog's pace, at least. Buz sat watching the dog with his elbow resting on the car door and his chin on his hand, wondering just how far it had to go. After half a mile a dusty track branched from the metalled road and the dog took it.

'Well, Dr Dolittle. Does the dog say follow?' Buz asked, nodding down the track.

'The dog says follow,' Tod nodded, and Buz laughed quietly. Once Tod got his mind set on an idea he could be as determined as Buz.

'You know, it's going to be dark soon,' Buz reminded him. The sun was almost touching the horizon now, a great ball of melting flame that was spreading golds and reds into the grasses.

Tod shrugged. 'We've got food, water, bedrolls, and we've always got the means for fire,' he laughed, tapping the half-empty packet of Malboros in his pocket. 'We can camp if need be.'

Buz settled back in his seat again, watching the prairie crawl past. It felt as if they were in a boat as the car rolled slowly up and down the swells after the dog. The grass stretched out on all sides, glinting with fall browns and golds and mauves and greens that blended together into a swaying whole that made him think of a dry sea.

'I wonder if that's it,' he murmured as the silhouette of a tumbledown structure appeared in a small stand of trees. 'What is that? A house? A barn?'

'Looks like an old house to me,' Tod said, peering forward. 'I guess there always were farming families living out in places like this.'

Buz looked around himself. 'Forty miles from the nearest town?' he asked. 'I mean, how did they survive?'

He shivered. He couldn't say that he had enjoyed the orphanage that had pulled him up, but he had loved the streets, the buildings with windows like eyes and walls like the rocky sides of canyons. Cars had flowed like water down the rivers of the streets and trees had been blackened things struggling to push up to the sky with initials carved into their bark. He had felt secure that whatever happened, he would be able to survive somehow, even if it was by huddling up behind a dumpster somewhere on a bed of cardboard and scrounging food from garbage cans. This kind of wideness and emptiness seemed a strange place to live.

'It's a farm, Buz,' Tod said tolerantly. 'They'd have a well for water, a garden for vegetables, a cow for milk – and horses and a wagon for getting where they wanted to go. What do you think people did before there were stores selling you everything you think you need?'

'If it's a farm, where are the barns?' Buz pointed out, gesturing at the tangle of tree trunks and undergrowth. There were no other structures obvious in the mess apart from the house that had been half destroyed by time.

'Oh, they probably crumbled into the ground long ago,' Tod said, but he sounded disconcerted all the same. 'There's probably a hump or a bump hereabouts, and that's all that's left of the home of faithful old Betty or Daisy or Spot or whatever they might have called her.'

Buz laughed, but he looked curiously at the old house. Tod put on the headlights and suddenly the surrounding land seemed to be swallowed up in darkness. As they approached the lights reflected from dirty and cracked windows, and lit up whitewashed boards that had long since dimmed with grime and mould. The house looked more like a town house whipped up by a tornado and deposited here than something that had been built by homesteaders long ago.

'You don't like places like this, do you, Buz?' Tod asked him, looking at him appraisingly.

'It's not that I don't like them exactly,' Buz replied. 'I mean, give me the open road and some space about me and I'm happy. How's that song go? Give me lots of land… the starry sky above. Don't fence me in. I mean, I don't dig the style but the sentiment's all there, you know.'

'As long as there's a store within ten miles, huh?'

'As long as there's a pair of wheels beneath me and somewhere to go to,' Buz amended. 'I dig this kind of place, but I don't want to live here. I mean, where are the girls, for a start?'

Tod laughed, nodding towards the house. 'Maybe they're in there. Maybe there's a whole secret school of private secretaries just waiting for you. Why don't we follow the dog and see, huh?'

As the car slowed to a stop the dog looked round at them, suddenly quivering with anxiety. She whimpered and ran to the car door, looking between Buz and the house. He took a flashlight from the glove box and got out of the car.

'Leave the headlights on, will you,' he said uneasily to Tod. There was something reassuring about those pools of light.

'You want me to keep an eye out for omens and ghosts?' Tod asked as he joined him.

'Very funny,' Buz said.

The dog walked on towards the house and Buz followed, holding the flashlight half ready to turn on and half ready to strike any unexpected assailant over the head. It was warm and quiet, and there was almost no noise but their footsteps on the dry undergrowth and the dog padding ahead.

The door to the house hung open, the hinges half rusted away. Once there had been a glass pane in it that had smashed and lay in angular shards on the ground. The dog walked inside as if it were walking into its own home, and looked back at the two men.

'Maybe the pups are in here,' Buz murmured, flashing his light about the room. It was a strange, eerie place, like a shipwreck without the water, possessions and furniture scattered as if slewed by outside forces, eaten by damp and rodents' teeth. The dog made its way to another door near an old wooden staircase, and walked through.

Tod and Buz followed. The air smelt of musty cloth and old wood and mould, and somewhere a scent of urine came and went. Buz put his head around the door and shone the light through, and then sucked in his breath sharply.

'What is it?' Tod asked, pushing to see past Buz's shoulder.

'You know I said, where are the girls?' Buz said.

He shone the light at the corner of the room. In it there was an ancient wing-backed chair, and sitting there, knees hunched up to her chest and her hair falling darkly about her face, was a woman.