A ghost story for Christmas... Friendly Fire

Joseph Bulmer

When I was writing monthly articles for another local publication, I always liked to make my December offering slightly different, by writing my own ghost story, loosely based on inspiration taken from Dartmoor during my explorations, or from experiences shared to me by other people.

Let’s continue that tradition here by telling a spooky story each week on the lead up to Christmas, so turn down the lights, and put another log on the roaring fire, settle back and enjoy...

Friendly Fire is inspired by walking the army ranges on the north moor and a bit of wishful thinking...

Josh was a Dartmoor boy through and through. When he was born, his parents lived in a rented cottage on Mr Jago’s farm, just outside Okehampton, on the edge of the north moor.

They both worked for the farmer, and, as soon as he was able, Josh had started working for him too.

Sadly, his father had been killed in a tragic accident, when his horse had thrown him after being spooked by an explosion from an army mortar shell.

He had been acting as a range clearer for the farming community, keeping the livestock out of harms way, but on this occasion some cows had eluded him.

Turning back for them, the army spotter must have missed him and was too late stopping the mortar firing... friendly fire they had called it.

Josh was only 12, and his mother had no other family locally to turn to for help, so the farmer took pity on them.

He let them stay on in the cottage, while they still worked for him, even regarding Josh as the son he never had.

When he left school, Jago made him his apprentice, the idea being to leave the farm to him when it all became too much.

Josh had jumped at the chance, he had loved being brought up on the farm, relishing every part of the lifestyle, after all he knew no other.

Every spare moment he had, Josh would take himself off and roam the open moor in all weathers, soaking up the solitude and learning all its secrets.

He particularly liked the winter months, when the tourists had gone and he could reclaim the land for himself, but he always had to share it with his neighbours... the army.

He tried not to blame them for his father’s death, there had been an inquiry, conducted by the army themselves, naturally, but their conclusion was the horse and rider had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, therefore the verdict was friendly fire.

Josh had decided to keep himself to himself where they were concerned, politely declining their offer to be a range clearer, when he was asked to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He so looked forward to the August break, when the army shut down the ranges, giving them over to the influx of holidaymakers.

Josh didn’t mind them so much, as families with kids didn’t tend to stray too far on to the moor and he knew the places to go where he could reclaim his solitude away from any crowds.

He loved the fact there were no red flags flying, telling him when and where he could go on his doorstep, without them he was free to roam day and night.

Josh certainly made the most of that month every year, with its longer daylight hours, he would often stay out until it got dark, testing out his night vision to get himself home safely across a landscape he knew like the back of his hand.

One of his favourite walks was up to Steeperton, the hut on the hill, where he would sit for hours lost in his thoughts and memories, for it was here that his father had been killed during a night exercise.

Josh had often heard him say that the best part of a range clearer’s job was being able to stay in one of those observation posts in the dark, a fire going in the stove to keep you warm, and a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and unpolluted sky above, it was better than camping he said, apart from the constant noise of the army boys!

That was the one thing he wished he could do, to stay in Steeperton hut and experience it like his father had, but the army kept them securely locked when not in use... until one day when Josh’s wish came true, and he got more than he bargained for!

On the day in question, Josh slipped away from the farm late afternoon, having done his fair share of the chores, intending to spend some time on his favourite hill, then navigate his way back in the dark.

Passing the empty army camp, he crossed the Okement at Cullever Steps, heading up to Winter Tor with Oke Tor beyond.

From here it was down the slope into Steeperton Gorge, making his way along it until reaching a suitable place to climb the hill.

Sometimes this felt like climbing a mountain, but Josh was a fit lad, and this was all part of the challenge.

Once at the top, he made his way to the hut, preparing to spend some time with his dad.

He always packed some supplies and a flask of tea, it always made him feel like they were sharing a meal together.

As he neared the hut, he noticed something wasn’t quite right, the padlock on the main door was hanging loose. Someone hadn’t done their job properly, he thought.

Probably some rookie cadet in a rush to get off home to see his mum for the summer holidays!

Removing the redundant padlock, Josh opened the heavy metal door and stepped inside.

It was dark, every other window and door had been secured to keep the place mothballed until the autumn, but Josh always carried his headlamp with him, just in case his night vision let him down.

Switching it on, he surveyed the interior of the small space.

There was a stove, for both heating and cooking/brewing purposes, a couple of comfy sofas for chilling on in between watches, even a basic latrine affair in the corner.

Army kit hung on racks and hooks, while an inspection of cupboards and drawers revealed an assortment of useful objects, including torches, whistles and flares.

His most important find, however, was a set of keys, which, after a bit of trial and error, he found opened up all the shutters, giving a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.

After all his rooting around, Josh noticed that he was starting to lose the light, and this gave him an idea.

Wouldn’t it be a shame to squander this opportunity, he thought.

No one would miss him back at the farm for one night, so he set about squatting in the hut, promising to lock the padlock properly when he left in the morning.

With the shutters up, he had the perfect view of the night sky, with an almost full moon.

The downside, it was starting to get a bit chilly, so he decided to light the stove, having found a supply of dry logs, kindling and matches.

He wasn’t too bothered about giving off any smoke, as any one else close enough to notice would just assume it was a fellow wild camper like themselves.

Fire lit, he settled down on one of the comfy sofas, and began wondering if this was how it had been for his father, on his night time watch duties, except that Josh wasn’t about to be disturbed by any army manoeuvres.

The sofa proved a bit too comfy for him, and with the heat from the fire, it wasn’t long before Josh started to nod off...

...suddenly he was awoken with a start, as the metal door opened with a loud unoiled creak, and a figure strode in to stand by the fire, his back to Josh. In the gloom, he tried to make out who this person was, but he wore a long shepherd’s coat with the hood up shielding his face.

Next minute another figure appeared, dressed in army uniform and handed the first guy a pair of night vision goggles.

“Thanks pal,” said the first, “I’ve left mine back at the farm, you’re a lifesaver!”

The second man grunted and left, while the first began viewing the landscape with the goggles on.

Suddenly the man cursed: “How did I miss those cows?” with that, he rushed from the hut and, in the darkness, Josh heard the whinny of a horse as its rider mounted it in haste.

Next minute there was an ear-splitting explosion, and the darkness around the hut was lit up, giving Josh a silhouetted view of a frightened horse rearing up and bolting, while the rider was thrown off on to rocks, receiving a savage blow to the head.

...Josh awoke with a start. All was silent and dark. It took him a few moments to realise where he was, and that what he had witnessed was but a dream... wasn’t it?

It slowly dawned on him that what he had seen must have been details of his father’s tragic death.

As his eyes focused in the darkness, he was drawn to the flames in the stove that were slowly dying and becoming smoky.

Gradually a shape appeared in the smoke, a face, the face of his father, accompanied by a voice: ”Please forgive me Josh. It was my fault! If I hadn’t left my goggles behind, I wouldn’t have had to borrow the spotter’s and he might have seen me chasing after those stupid cows! Please don’t blame him. I love you son!”

Then the voice and the face in the fire were gone...

...after that night, the phrase 'friendly fire' took on a whole new meaning for Josh.

He felt a renewed closeness to his father, with stronger memories every time he visited Steeperton hut.

Maybe the job of a range clearer wouldn’t be so bad after all...