It was evident that timber mafia had ravaged the forest with impunity. Pristine forest had since lost its glory. There were large areas where not a single full grown tree could be seen. And there was hardly any wild life.
“What of wild life of this area?” he asked the guard.
“Most animals have migrated from this forest. Some have died. Many animals have been killed by poachers.”
“What have you people been doing all these years?” he almost shouted in desperation. But he could almost anticipate the reply.
“Sir, I am petty employee but I know one thing for sure, no one in this country is truly keen that law be strictly enforced. Even the common people would start grumbling if every law was firmly implemented. We are not a law abiding society, are we?”
He was not prepared for such a reply and was taken aback by the forthrightness of the guard. In any case he didn’t expect a mere forest guard to view law enforcement in such a cynical manner.
They arrived at the forest hut by early evening. Sun had almost set. Before opening the door guard looked at him with his pleading eyes. But he had already made up his mind. He had a strong feeling that rumours about the ghost had been floated by timber thieves. Since forest officials were scared to come and inspect these areas, there was hardly any check on their nefarious activities and they were able to loot the national wealth with impunity.
Hut was reasonably furnished and well maintained even though few guests stayed here. He occupied the front room; it was fairly large. Guard moved to a small room at the back, adjacent to the kitchen. There was a natural spring just behind the hut. Spring water was cold and sweet and few sips of this water were enough to make one feel fresh.
Guard prepared food for both of them. It was a simple vegetarian fare, but hot and delicious. After they had their meals, he reclined on an easy chair which was lying in the veranda. Forest was dark and totally noiseless. There were no clouds in the sky. Brilliance of the stars amazed him. He had never seen stars on a dark, cloudless night. Far away in artificial lights of city, stars appeared pale and insignificant. But not in that forest; in the dark, moon less night stars looked spectacular and alive.
“Sir, may I sleep in your room?” guard was almost pleading.
“What did you say?” He was roaming in a different realm and did not comprehend what the guard was saying.
“I can’t sleep alone in that room near kitchen. I am really scared of the ghost,” guard requested.
“If there really is a ghost in this hut then I don’t think even two of us can match his strength and guile,” he said jokingly. But he took pity on the poor man and asked him to sleep in his room.
“I think we should leave the lantern on?” guard suggested.
“But dim the light.”
Guard appeared to heave a sigh of relief. He dimmed the light and immediately entered his bed; he was soon asleep. But, somehow, even in this peaceful place he found difficult to sleep. He kept on brooding over the activities of timber thieves. He could sense that it was multi-layer racket involving forest officials, police and politicians. He was not sure that he could do anything to restrain them.
He was lost in such and other stray thoughts when he thought he heard sound of footsteps coming from veranda. Then there was a muffled sound of someone groaning outside the room.
“Who could that be?” he wondered. He was about to wake up the guard but didn’t do so.
“Poor man is already scared of the ghost,” he said to himself.
He quietly opened the door and came out, holding his big torch in one hand. There was no one in the veranda. But then he heard someone running away. He was sure he had heard crunching of leaves.
“Someone was here; must be a timber thief keeping a watch on us,” he thought.
He decided to recline in the easy chair for some time, for he was not feeling sleepy. He would have reclined there for a few minutes only when he heard a loud sound coming from other side of the hut. He rushed in and found the guard awake. But the guard was trembling in fear.
“Let us see what that noise was?”
“No sir, we should stay here, it must be the ghost.”
“Come with me,” he thundered.
“The noise came from the kitchen,” guard said meekly. Both of them rushed to the kitchen. Kitchen door was open. Everything was scattered on the floor.
“It is the ghost,” mumbled the guard.
“Oh! Don’t you say that? It must be some cat? Or may be rats?”
“But how could they open the door. I had locked it myself.”
“Then some timber thief would have intruded into the hut,” he asserted but he himself was not sure of what he was saying. No one could have reached kitchen without going through veranda and front room where they had laid the beds.
“No sir, it is not a timber thief, it is the ghost.”
“Just clean it up and go to sleep.” He left in irritation and came back to veranda and uncertainly sat on the chair. It was then that he again heard crunching of leaves. He pierced the darkness with the beam of his big torch but he could see no one out there. Despite his self-assurance he was now a bit fidgety.Suddenly he heard blood-curdling scream. For a moment he just froze in his chair. And then he was drowned in fear that something untoward had happened to the guard. He ran towards the kitchen. And what he saw there shocked him beyond his wits.
(to be continued)
© i b arora