The house at the Orchard after a light snowfall. Pic courtesy a cousin. In BW for Vintage effect.

Hurry Up, I told my friend as we ran towards the Lakkar Bazaar bus stop in Shimla. It was already dark and the last bus to Kotkhai was leaving in another 10 minutes. We were still at the Mall and started running down the hill towards the Skating Rink which stood next to the Lakkar Bazaar bus-stand. We managed to reach the bus stand just in time to get into the bus which was headed towards our destination.

It was April but the evening were still crisp as the summer had not set in yet. Evening times rides in Himachal Roadways buses in those time in the early 90s were always special as there would be number of characters who would be nicely high on whatever their choice of poison was. The atmosphere in the bus was a distinct Himachali one as Kotkhai is not really on the Tourist map even today there were only locals in the bus except me and my friend who were just given our 12th exam and were visting our Family Orchards just before Kotkhai. Being from Kashmir I probably passed off as semi locals anyway.

We had come with a group of friends to spend a few days at the Family orchards near Kotkhai and all the other guys had left in the morning but me and my friend had stayed put due to a romantic entanglement that I found myself in with a very pretty lass from Sanjauli. Nothing much came out of it as she didn’t turn up at the rendezvous point at the fixed time and after much heart ache and facing a barrage of jokes from my friend we decided to go to the orchard that evening itself. I was down and nothing lifted the spirit like a couples of pegs. So after getting nicely happy with my friend I realized that we had little time to catch the bus and hence our rush to the bus stand.

All said and done me and my friend were now in the bus as it slowly snaked through Shimla town. It was a slow a tedious crawl to get out of the town and soon we were on our way to Kufri which was on the way. Kufri went by and so did Fagu until we reached Theog and here as the bus stopped briefly we had some tea and we realized that it was already 9 pm and it would take us atleast 1 hour more to be dropped at Koku Nalla which was the place where we were to get off the bus just before the bridge. The Orchard itself was around a 3 km walk from there on a kacha road.

Again the bus started and it started to descend on the curvy mountain road towards Gumma. After what seemed an eternity we reached Gumma and Gumma always had the close to the Orchard feeling for me. Whenever I used to go to the Orchard, Gumma was the place reaching which I would tell my self that the Orchard is not far now. Had the same feeling again thsi time. So again after travelling for a while the conductor shouted Koku Nallah, anyone for Koku Nallah and I immediately shout yes and I realize that my friend had dozed off. I nudged him and we picked up our bags and got off the bus.

We just watched the bus leaving and it was then that I realised (now that the pegs were wearing off) that it was already 10:30 in the night. There was not a soul around and the only noise one can hear is the of the Pahadi dogs warning each others and idiots like us to stay off their turf. The Lalaji’s shop right at the road head was also shut and there was no light whatsoever.

It was then that I realized that all the years travelling to the Orchard we had never walked up in that late in the night and it was always in the day time or we always had a vehicle to take us up the kacha rasta upto the orchard. It was eerie at night and all the ghost stories that I had heard about these mountains and hill started coming to my mind. The house close to our house where three people were apparently murdered or the lady in a white gown which was seen in the Orchard at times in the night looking for her beloved or how one of my cousins had been possessed by the Demon himself one night at the orchard.

But I was always a rational man and I didnt believe in one bit of this bhoot wala mumbo jumbo. But my friend did as it was routine practice for me and my cousins to scare the hell of our friends who came to stay at the orchard by telling them mostly made up ghost stories around the bon-fire. Seeing all the almost grown men almost frozen in their chairs with fright was something we all cousins enjoyed but especially me as I didnt believe in all this bhoot stuff.

Ghosts aside there was one thing that I was really scared of at this time of the night. It was a present and clear danger and I could hear it as we started our walk up the rasta towards the Orchard. It was a completely still dark night and not even a leaf was shaking. There was just the sound of the Nallah that ran along the road. And it was then that we heard a bark. It was a bark with a deep bass accompanied by other barks. These were the Pahari Dogs which protected the Orchards and they were quiet languid lazy creatures in the day time but come night they were transformed into the hounds from hell. Among other duties they had to keep marauding monkeys out and also as a warning when the occasional leopard or a bear decided to visit the Orchard. These Dogs also didn’t fancy unknown humans coming anywhere near the Orchards as well in the night time.

Being a dog lover I understood that they were doing their job and doing it well but that did not lessen in anyway the fear I had of a chunk of my calf being taken by Moti the alpha dog at the Orchard. He even let me pat him in that day time but come night time and he was nobody’s friend.

But we didn’t have any choice and I told my friend who was more scared of the Ghosts, ok lets do one thing I will fight the Ghosts if they come but you should fight the Dogs if they come. Seemed a reasonable trade off. So if a Ghost came I will go in front and face him and if it was the Dogs then my friend would face them. And it was then that the small flashlight went off. We had just walked a few steps and it went off. Just like that. Kaput. Murphy’s Law. So we had no choice but to slowly walk upwards with sticks in our hands and the barking constantly growing louder and coming closer.

We couldn’t see anything so we just lit of our lighter to give us whatever light it could. We walked closer to the gate of the Orchard till where cars could go. Finally after around 15 minutes we reached the gate of the Orchard. The thing was as long as you are not inside the Orchard gate the Dogs would just bark. But once you stepped past the Gate you were trespassing the territory of Moti and his band of brothers who knew how to rise up to the occasion and protect their turf. My friend was a little relieved that we reached the gate but I just grew more tense. The house was still a kilometer up the mountain and we had to walk through narrow pakhdandis through the Apple trees to get to the house. Anyways I opened the gate and stepped in.

The moment I stepped in I saw a moment in front of me. An animal just walked past the pakdandi around 10 meters in front of us. As we froze we saw the shining eyes just look at us for a moment and then it just slipped away and vanished. We just froze in our tracks. I asked my friend whether he had seen it. And he said yes I saw those eyes. Standing there we could hear the dogs barking very viciously but I realized they were not barking at us and something else had caught their fancy. The possibilities ran through my head as to what it was that we just saw ?

Taking no chances we went through our bags and we took out some newspapers. Bundled a few together and made a torch type thing and lit it. There was no way we were going to walk anymore in the dark without any light source. And soon we had some light and warily we started walking again. Up through the trees and we could hear the Dogs coming closer but by now we were pretty sure that they were not after us but probably after whatever creature that we saw. We just kept walking and walking hurriedly cause now we were close to the house and approaching the big tap right outside the small fence of the house boundary.

And then it happened again and we could feel those eyes looking at us again. And this time instead of just walking it just stood and we could feel the stare of those eyes if only for a few seconds. But as we froze the creature suddenly jumped the tap and disappeared into the night. As soon as he did that we saw Moti and two of his accomplices come running in and going in the direction of where the creature went. They didn’t even look at us, probably much more excited in getting their paws and teeth on whatever they were chasing. We stood for a moment and then just ran towards the house. We knocked the Door and the chowkidaar opened and he was surprised to see us there at that time. Why did you come so late ? he asked. Should have stayed in Shimla. It is not safe at night here he said again. I just ignored and walked up to where my cousins and friends were. Some sleeping some drunk.

We were also very tired and just hunkered down without telling anyone our story as the ones who were awake were just too sozzled to be interested in our story. So we just dropped into bed and slept. Early morning we woke up to a commotion and the chowkidaar was there and asking everyone especially me to come down and have a look at what had transpired in the night. There was a half eaten goat lying just outside the house boundary near the tap. Yes the same tap where we had seen the creature in the night. The goat was taken from a neighbors shed around 300 metres from there. Looking at the half eaten body I asked the chowkidaar, who did this ?

It was a Leopard he said as he showed me the teeth marks on the throat. The whole of last night suddenly flashed before me and in hind sight I realized what it was we saw, a Leopard. Yes a Leopard and that also at close quarters. I just looked at my friend and smiled. Not the Ghosts, not the Dogs, it was the Leopard !