The three of them had been all day on mule back during the annual boundary check and now sat their saddles, tired  and silent as they headed for home. It is easy to build up a quick cameraderie when riding together, and as easy afterwards to sink into a harmonious reverie that, in its own way is as socially cohesive as the earlier talking. The mules knew they were homewards bound immediately and pricked up their ears, swished their tails free of flies and picked up the pace a fraction, not too fast; there were three hours more riding to do and they were aware of that. The tired bodies slowed the mind but couldn’t stop it working. It was like being lulled in a rocking cradle as a child is, pleasant but not conclusive. The muscles of the body needed to be hardened to the riding to be able to appreciate the tiredness without soreness or physical discomfort. The terrain in these hills was rough and rocky, and the secret was to allow the mules to do what they did best with as little interference as possible on the reins. Sometimes a mule would stumble and it was necessary then to give a jerk on the reins, and call out a steadying word or two with a pat on the side of the neck to emphasise the partnership. But generally now, the partnership was mobility with the minimum of effort, each component aware of the comforts awaiting at journey’s end.

They had passed a broad, fast, running mountain stream some hours back in the heat of the midday and had spurred their mules across in a flurry of spraying, flying hooves, scattering the water as high as to wet their legs and the flanks of the mules. The thought of the cool water as a counterpoint to the different coolness of the sweat-soaked shirt clinging to his back, had served to click a switch in B’s mind and, without a word to the other two, he dismounted and tethered Boston Stump to a nearby tree. Stripping off his clothes he threw himself into the stream, gasping as the water clenched his hot flesh in its cold embrace. It was an ultimate experience he had tried out before in other places and at other times and he beat the water in an ecstasy of splashing that was partly to warm himself and partly to express his exuberance at the sheer physicality. There was a deep stretch close by that he waded to  and swam some strokes, opening his mouth to drink in gulps of the clear water.

He looked up and saw his two companions, immobile on their mules, watching him from a distance. They had missed him and come back, but neither would join him in the water. Both the Brazilian and the Welshman looked, if not exactly censorious, somehow  as though it was not the  sort of thing one does in working hours. He roared out in happiness and called out to them, not expecting any response, and because he didn’t get one, he stayed on a little longer than he otherwise would have done, before emerging, dripping and shivering to put on the same sweat soaked clothing he had so recently discarded. His body tingled with new energy and this lasted for some time, but he could feel its ebbing with each clip-clop of Boston’s metal shoes on the track under the sun’s burning languor.

And now it’s home – riding home – bounce, jerk, roll, bounce, jerk, roll – the muscles holding firm but tiring fast – the mind groping for the thread of a subject. Before reaching the stream they had ridden through a bamboo grove, and Geraldo’s usual sombre demeanour had quickened at the sight of some white flowers on the tall stalks of a plant amongst the bamboos. ‘See,’ he said with as much enthusiasm as any Mineiro can summons, ‘these sort of plants only flower once every 120 years.’ They had stopped to gaze at this phenomenon. ‘One hundred and twenty years?’ Repeated John Bryant in his precise way. ‘Yes.’  ‘How does anyone know that? You’ve never seen these flowers before, and we’ll never see them again if that’s true.’ ‘It is so, if you live in the hills it is something that everyone knows even though no one ever sees the flowers. But now we have seen them.’

This was the thread for B’s tired mind to follow now. True or false? Such unusual flowers as these or anything else, come to that. What could you believe? Really and truly. Enough to lay your life on the line? Bryant had obviously not believed the story and B kept an open mind. Everyone said things and you mostly accepted them. It was a sort of social thing. I tell you my stories and you tell me yours and we both feel better and closer and that is how life goes on. Is it necessary to believe? Is it important? It’s a story, isn’t it? Does it matter if it’s false or true? At work it’s different, but socially you can say what some one else told you and pass it on until it becomes a rumour or a myth or just dies out from sheer inactivity.

Recently he had ridden through a distant, outlying part of Nova Lima. A bomsera on a hillside, squalid but with happy looking people living  with a back-drop of bush-green jungle and mud. His companion greeted an old, wizened but dignified looking black man who was sitting on a chair in front of an open, two-section door. He presented a picture of benign, contentment, surrounded by bare foot women hanging out their washing as they chatted across his head and children playing on a low, stone parapet. ‘Bom dia, sr Nig.’ And the old man had raised his head and returned the greeting. ‘he was born a slave.’ said B’s companion; this bomsera was where the slaves were housed, and he had lived here all his life. The companion, also a Brazilian, wasn’t sure when slavery was abolished in Brazil. But B knew; it was in 1888 and for the story to be true, the old man had to be over 71 years of age which he certainly looked to be. If not an actual  slave before his birth that year, he had in all probability been born to parents who were slaves. These stories were told, not for any advantage for the teller but something related in passing and which was the cement of relationships.

Another time as he travelled in the Company train along the narrow guage railway track, alongside, as the train left Nova Lima, were high banked up deposits of rubble called ‘tailings,’ because at the end of the process of grinding the gold bearing ore to a powder and treating the dust with cyanide to extract the precious metals of gold and silver, the residue or ‘tailings’ was brought here to be dumped. Some of this residue had been lying here since the last century when extraction of gold from the mined ore was probably no more than 70%, but as the technology to improve the extraction percentage improved with time, until now it was getting close to 90% and higher, there were special retrieval operations undertaken to re-cycle these ‘tailings’ back to the Reduction Plant and put them through the modern process and thus gain additional gold production.

A number of men were always to be seen toiling away on these waste heaps, panning to recover the infinite small quantities of  gold that had slipped through the latest reduction process. The mining company worked to an estimated yield of 11 grammes of gold per ton of ore  mined for its production target calculations. Whatever the extraction percentage yield might have been in reality was difficult to say precisely, but an estimation at the time would be around 90% yet here it was possible to witness men who were prepared to sift through the waste product in the hope of  recovering, at best, an average of 1.1 grammes for each ton they worked on. With the price of gold fixed internationally at US$35.00 an ounce at that time, 1.1 grammes of gold could be expected to yield the prospector perhaps………….. his mind attempted to evade the calculation, its tiredness protesting at doing the mental arithmetic that at other times it was more than ready to tackle. 

He jerked his mind back to the task, just as it was necessary to jerk Boston’s reins when a loss of concentration was apparent. Go on. How many grammes to an ounce? Yes, 28.35. So, that is what? 35 divided by 28.35. And that is? Oh no. Oh yes. You do. Go on. The mind fumbled the figures; try again. 1.24, no, 1.234, that’s enough decimal points. Now multiply that by 1.1 grammes which gives 1.35. And what does that signify? He had lost contact with the origin of the question. Now, remember the result before working backwards to find out what the question was. Yes, that’s it. A garimpeiro – a gold panner – on the waste heap would hope to earn himself an average of US$1.35 for every ton of waste sifted through his pan. Now, how many tons could the man shift a day? The problem expired there, as he didn’t know.

A difficult climb in the track came up and the labouring mind reverted to the here and now. Am I losing my concentration or re-gaining it? He wondered. He could see Bryant’s set face above his stiff body and he knew he was suffering. Geraldo had been doing this since he was a boy and a days riding in the hills was a part of his life. B was beginning to ache deep within and he eased his body in the saddle. They took the climb singly, each watched by the other two, before starting along the new trail, strung out in single file. How long now? An hour? More. Two hours? No, less. He settled his body again in the saddle, moving with the irregular motion and sought to regain another strand for mentally absenting himself. It is funny; sometimes the body relieves the mind and at other times it can be the reverse. What’s that? Why, the mind relieving the body, you nit-wit. What is the body? Matter – the physical. And the mind? Careful now, no one knows what the mind is made up of. It could be physical matter like the body. Probably is. But that doesn’t make the idea any less valid. Just incomplete. Everything is incomplete, and has to be developed or disproved and replaced with new ideas that are not wholly valid in themselves, but more valid than the theories they replace. Examples please? Well, only sleep relieves both mind and body. Hm, maybe. The soldiers of the French Foreign Legion sleep on their feet as they march through the night with only a wide awake marker as a guide in front. Where did you hear this? It was in a ‘twopenny blood’ comic I used to read as a boy. Is it true or false? It will always have some truth in it for me. The power of social conditioning eh?

Why did I go on that first CND protest march to Aldermaston when we were in England last year? Was I born to be a protester or was I socially conditioned to be one? Some people had stood by the roadside and applauded as we marched by, but others had scowled and muttered words like ‘Reds’ and ‘Communists.’ Why are we as we are? Born or bred? Nature or Nurture? Genetic or social conditioning? It must be some of each in my opinion, but can you quantify the percentage of each? Impossible. That march seemed centuries ago. He remembered being very detached,coming from Brazil, but enjoyed the friendliness and the halts, where you chatted with strangers, and the church bells ringing as the march walked into a town. Reading, wasn’t it? But now real life is here in Brazil, even though in a complete backwater as far as the main stream of world events in concerned. But for perhaps that very reason it seems more of a real world, unimpeded as it is by eye-grabbing newspaper headlines, the repeated radio bulletins and the daily weight of civilization’s destination to be charted.

Riding home – riding home – the last round up! Ursula had started working in the Electrical Department as George Pearson’s secretary. Pompous old George. Cliffie hated it when she left in the mornings, but it was only half day. He didn’t speak much at two years old. Melanie used to call out to him, ‘fale menino,’ but he wouldn’t, at least not for anyone to understand, other than Julie. He made noises and, to everyone else, they were incomprehensible noises. You had to say, ‘what is he saying Julie?’ And she would tell you. Strange. But he was a Mason and as B knew they were slow starters and were behind the field to begin with. Though when the pace slackened the Mason’s were just feeling like getting a move on. The trouble then was that the field attempted to slow you down to their pace, the stragglers then started to get in your way and you either felt sorry for them or irritated by them but you knew you had to sweep past them if you were going to make your mark. That is competitiveness. You can’t allow yourself to be held up or held back by other people. It becomes a moral problem when competitiveness tells you to sacrifice other people. B tried never to do that, but he knew he had done it. What would Cliffie be like when he grew up? What do you want him to be like? Thanks; a futile question – he will be what he will be. Que sera, sera. Is that right? A  fatalistic destiny? Well, not quite. Change subject.

Last week Cliffie had been stung by a venomous caterpillar. He was playing in the garden and his arm swelled up, the skin showing a bright, red weal. Melanie said he ought to go to see the doctor because the result of such a sting could be very serious. Dr Borges had given him something to take and although the pain and the red mark continued for days afterwards he had no further symptoms. These stings can cause internal bleeding and be fatal, said Melanie when it was all over and there was no more danger to Cliffie. There were a number of bugs and insects around capable of giving unpleasant nips, bites and stings, and one had always to be careful. B had given a frantic mother, carrying a supine child in her arms, a lift, in the pick-up to the town hospital. The child had been bitten by a snake. It was believed by many of the town’s educated Brazilians that country people sometimes died after being bitten by a snake, more because they were convinced they would die rather than from the effect of the bite. It was a case of the expectation driving the result. He had heard the same in India. Was it then the patronising middle class, themselves, far less likely to be bitten by snakes, inventing stories about country bumpkins?

Julie seemed less accident prone than Cliffie, more victim of circumstances, like the time they had been hard up after their leave in England and Julie’s face in the area around her nose had started to turn yellow, which they put down to giving her too many mamoes – papayas – to eat; these grew in their garden. They had stopped giving mamoes to Julie even though the trees were loaded with the fruit and the yellowish coloration had disappeared. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. That was the time they had found it difficult to pay the gardener and given him empty bottles as part of his wages as these were cashable at Aristides.

One of the new directors – an American Swede called Gustavson had newly arrived and told Mr Watson that he had only part of a stomach on account of an operation and found it difficult to eat many foods. The easiest food for him to digest was papaya, and he was looking forward to eating the Brazilian papayas which he had heard were especially delicious. Alas, it was not the mamao season, but Ron Duncan was dispatched to Belo where some were always available in the market, at a price. Everything will be available in Belo Horizonte one day, when you will be able to reach it or leave it by multi-lane motor ways and there won’t be mountains and countryside visible at each end of the main drag. The driver of a strange vehicle had seen Mike and him staring at it on the main street and invited them to get in and come for a ride. It was, he informed them with immense pride, a Willys Jeep – the first passenger vehicle ever to be assembled in Brazil; in Sao Paulo, where the first embryonic Brazilian car industry was taking its first hesitant steps in manufacturing cars.

The late afternoon had got caught up in a dark blur of rising cloud – the sort that springs up when it can suck enough moisture from these empty hills, with its blazing heat. There is a sudden short-lived downpour somewhere, a few cracks of thunder reverberate over the earth’s uneven surfaces and a flash or two of lightening, before the atmosphere settles down again, changing from its day-ending mode to a dull opaqueness and the swift onset of night. There is no lingering twilight in these parts. John was in the lead and stopped. ‘What do you think?’ He gestured to his cape strapped to the side of the saddle, addressing B in English.  There was a little under an hour still to go and they should make it by nightfall. If it rained the temperature would not drop too much and personally, B did not really care if he got a soaking. It would be different if you got cold with it. But he knew John, an ex-army major, loved decision and precision. John was precise by nature but needed to make himself decisive through his own efforts. His preciseness led him many times to decisions that were at odds with the general trend of thought or feeling within the group and he would be good humorously shouted down, or engaged in unwanted debate. In the army he could have said, ‘well, that’s my decision, do it!’ But not with his colleagues or friends and he had become accustomed to put the question to others, hoping thus, to get his opinion confirmed before he uttered it. Knowing John’s thought processes, although sometimes infuriated by his pernickety thoroughness, yet being quite fond of his stiff-necked colleague, B pitched his answer to what he knew  was wanted, ‘better safe and dry than wet and sorry.’

He dismounted and reached for the bridle of John’s mule, Serena. The three caped and hooded up, each securing the other’s bridle in turns. Re-mounting was awkward and once up, the capes were spread about them and over the mounts’ fronts and backs. The hoods cut them off from the outside world and, as they spurred their tired mules onwards again,  the little cavalcade presented a somewhat surreal image, a little sinister scene, like Klu Klux Klan riders on an errand of fear. They had been riding five minutes when the swoosh of falling rain sounded, even before it wet them. Then they were in the beating rain as it raised cloudy dust and turned it into running mud; the rocks and stones boiled with films of steam under the washing of the scouring water. The view was blotted out and visibility shrank to a few yards along the track. They hunched themselves, dry and safe, within their protective covers while the water cascaded down the sides of their capes and down the mules’ flanks. Progress became slower as a wind buffeted the mules and the riders became more watchful.

A clear, blue sky greeted them as the rain stopped as quickly as it had arrived. It seemed as though they rode out of the storm but it was unlikely that the rain was stationary above them; it had either passed them by overhead and was now sweeping across the empty hills or it had rained itself out over them. Pastures stretched all around, glistening like a myriad jewels as the wet blades reflected the oblique light of the setting sun. These were company pastures, cultivated for the mules and part of B’s domain. It was the typically primitive cultivation of slash and burn; the slash had been carried out generations earlier when these wooded hills had been almost denuded of trees, and now when they required grazing for their animals. The Mineiros would burn the undergrowth every year before sowing the seeds; The burning was carried out in a traditional way, from the outside of the area to be burned, inwards to a central point. Some people said that the burning weakened the fertility of the land, destroying valuable ingredients; the proponents said the ash fertilised the soil making it suitable for re-sowing a pasture crop.

The first sight of the roof tops of Nova Lima appeared in the distance and the pace of the mules quickened. There would be a problem in getting them to go past their stables, which lay en route, on the outskirts of the town. The three riders put back their hoods and loosened their capes but did not stop and remove them after the rain ceased. They and their three mounts were alert now to the approach of journey’s end, and the pleasures of home coming. There was the expected tussle to spur the mules past their stables, where they protested and resisted having to go further. An occasional light marked the first isolated, white-washed cabins along the widening track and passing through the periphery of town they reached their destination beneath the club’s varandah. Stiffly, like old, arthritic men, they dismounted. ‘Ate logos,’ to Geraldo who would call the camerado to take the mules back, B felt that this was the end of something he would never experience again. ‘Who’ll be doing this next year?’ He half groaned to John giving a farewell pat to Boston’s side. ‘I feel like it’s my last round up.’