Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 1999
Adult Winners

Second Place

Our second place winner in the Adult category is Tom Sheehan of Saugus. Tom Sheehan has numerous books and articles to his credit, in both poetry and prose. His recent work Reflections from Vinegar Hill has been published on the Internet.

The Ghost of Vinegar Hill

Tom Sheehan

Again last night, at the hour before dawn when the whole world is quietest, when the moon spins over rocks and trees and the tops of houses like one eye of a greedy pirate, when the great black birds of darkness sail mysterious as clouds, and when all the children of Saugus sleep in their beds with the covers thrown off, the silence was stolen by a terrible, moaning cry from the top of Vinegar Hill.

Every time the moon is bright and rounder than the night before, or night is as dark as oblivion, every time the night is silent and shadows move of themselves, and sounds come from nowhere, strange things happen on the top of that hill. Vinegar Hill has a history, it has a tradition, and, strangest of all, Vinegar Hill has a ghost.

Few people believe in this ghost, at least on the outside. But some people know; the policemen in the darkness of our streets, the firemen who wait in the night for an alarm to sound, the night watchman at the Old Iron Works. They know. And they believe.

It began many years ago when Saugus was a little town on the road from Boston to Newburyport, when Ballard Street was called "The Landing Road," when there was no General Electric or Tidewater Mill or Scott's Mill, when the Oyster Inn on what is now Central Street was a stagecoach stop for the road north out of Boston, and when there was one last Indian village on the banks of the Saugus River.

The Indians were friendly, even though their ways were different from the early settlers of our town. They were members of the Eleventh Tribe of Matooka of the North. Matooka was a Great Spirit leader who lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago near a great lake in the New Hampshires. Those who study the Indian ways say Matooka still lives today and is called The Ghost of the Long Waters.

But our ghost is not Matooka, though he is of Matooka's tribe.

In those early days of Saugus only thirteen of the tribe lived here. They were the last thirteen of the Eleventh Tribe. The youngest in the village was a boy whose name was Matalakat or Running Wall and he dearly loved the animals of the forest and the birds of the air. No matter where he went there followed him, as if he were playing a magic flute, a flock of animals and birds. It is easy to see that Running Wall could never have been lost or lonely with so many friends around him all the time.

But even today, Running Wall is lonely. And it is his voice that sounds in the lonely moonlit night. Running Wall is the ghost of Vinegar Hill. And the sorrow one hears in his cry is enough to make the heart of the strongest man shudder with fear.

There never was a Twelfth Tribe of Matooka of the North. One by one, in their village on the banks of the river, the Indians died. They were buried standing up and their arms and legs bent as if they were running to meet the sun. Some people say the Indians caught a disease from the white man. Some say they died because their only hope for happiness was to rejoin Matooka in the fields of the sun or the ways of the water.

Near the end there were three Indians left; Chunto-wan the Elder, a girl named White Fir, and Running Wall. White Fir was an older sister to Running Wall and was very beautiful. Her skin was the color of a chosen sunset, her eyes black as black pearls the ocean holds onto, and her hair was the color of midnight without the moon.

Running Wall, beginning his sadness, saw his sister die. But it was not because of loneliness for Matooka or from disease.

One night under the cover of severe, thick clouds hiding the moon, a ship came up the river from the sea and tossed anchor near the Indian village. Many men came ashore. They were dirty and unkempt and their leader had a patch over his right eye. They were pirates looking for fresh water and dared not go into the little town to get it.

Carrying large goatskin bags, the pirates came to the Indian village where White Fir and Running Wall and Chunto-wan were sleeping. In the light of their torches the pirate leader took one look at White Fir and decided he would take her back aboard his ship. Chunto-wan and Running Wall fought as best they could, but were soon tied up with rope.

"I should knock off your heathen heads!" shouted the one-eyed captain. "We come here every year, and if you're here next year I'll hang your heads from the yardarm of my ship."

White Fir did not cry as she was being carried off. Running Wall, tied to a tree, heard her say, "Matooka gives me great strength. I will tear huge holes in your sails. You will never sail on the great waters without trouble following you. These are my words that are spoken in darkness but will live in the light."

When White Fir was almost out of sight, the moon leaped from behind a thick, black cloud, and Running Wall saw her carried aboard the ship. The rope ladder was pulled up and White Fir was thrown to the deck. Many of the pirate crew climbed in the rigging to unfold the sails. Slowly, under a slight breeze filling the sails, the ship turned about in the river. Then Running Wall and Chunto-wan saw White Fir rush to a rope ladder and begin to climb high into the ropes and the sails. The pirate captain laughed loudly, his voice bellowing across the water strong as a cannon's boom. "Ho, little one. What trouble do you make now?"

High in the rigging, near the topsail, White Fir shouted, "With this, beastly one!" And she held out a knife, which she had hidden under her robe. The golden light of the moon snatched at the blade as if the blade was a mirror. It looked like a shaft of fire, so bright did it gleam, and so dangerous did it look. High over her head she held the knife and the golden moon clutched it again and again, and the mirror shone again its awful fire, a dread hearth held aloft.

"Blast you, little savage!" screamed the captain. "Up lads," he yelled. "Up and after her. If she cuts our sails we're done in."

Up the ropes and hawsers and ladders went the crew like a swarm of monkeys, chattering and screaming at the girl. The higher they went, the higher went White Fir, climbing like Running Wall could not climb, until she could go no higher.

The captain looked up from the wheel. "We have you now, little savage. Throw down your knife unless ye be pitched to the deck."

With the knife still blazing above her, White Fir yelled out, "Matooka tells me you sail forever with more trouble in your sails, with trouble from the winds, with troubles from the great waters." And as one of the pirates reached out to grab her, White Fir, like a beautiful bird, leaped out with her flashing knife. But the strength of her leap did not bring her close enough to the great sail she wanted to tear. The slash of her knife fell inches short of the sail and she plummeted with a thud onto the deck of the ship.

"Over the sides with her, lads," the captain yelled. "Be done with her."

White Fir's broken body was tossed into the waters of the Saugus River. The last Running Wall saw of his sister was her body falling into the river, but he knew she was going to join Matooka in the ways of the water.

Then, as the ship moved smoothly in the stream and was heading down to the sea, Matooka spoke in the voice of the wind. A great gust of air came and hit the ship broadside and a loud and terrible sound was heard all through the town of Saugus. The captain looked up and the great sail White Fir had wanted to cut was split from its very top to its very bottom. And a knowing shudder ran through him.

Running Wall, with a heavy sadness filling him up, heard the captain yell, "The bloody savage has put a curse on us." And the moon hid again behind a dense black cloud and the ship moved slowly away in the darkness. All that shone in the utter night was a broad shaft of light on the bottom of the river where White Fir's knife with the moon still burning on its blade lay on the sandy bottom.

Before dawn came, Running Wall and Chunto-wan freed themselves from their rope bindings. For many days Running Wall could not talk, he was so sad. Now there were only two of them left in the Eleventh Tribe.

Chunto-wan spoke with kindness to the little boy. "Matooka and White Fir live forever. Never lose faith. They live forever. In the air, in the wind, in the waters of the earth. In the cold rock which becomes warm in the sun."

One day later that summer, when the sun lay like a warm sand over everything, Running Wall heard a strange sound, a new sound. When he went to investigate he found a wounded bird the like of which he had never seen before. It had beautiful black feathers down its back and eyes as black as two pieces of coal and its face was slightly pink the way the sky looks at a summer sunset. Running Wall thought it was White Fir returned winged to him. Chunto-wan knew it was not White Fir, but when he saw how much Running Wall loved it and how he took care of it and how light his heart had become, he knew that Matooka had sent the bird to ease the pain of Running Wall.

For days that grew into weeks, Running Wall cared for the bird. The wing, which had been hurt, came back to full strength and soon the bird flew about the skies over Vinegar Hill and the air of the river as no bird ever flew. It could dive down out of the clouds as if it were an arrow from the bow of Matooka himself.

Running Wall was delighted. "See how she dives, Chunto-wan," he would shout with glee. "Just the way White Fir leaped from the top of the ship. Such beauty. Such a streak of light. I will call her Mooroo after White Fir's favorite hunting arrow."

Chunto-wan smiled. On his old face that looked like a piece of harness leather or a worn saddle, happiness shone. Sometimes his gray eyes would light up like a cloud with the sun shining right through it. Even when the pain of age was working in his bones with a secret quickness, he was happy for the boy.

Running Wall and Mooroo ran and flew as free as the wind on the marsh grasses and through the cat o'nine tails. They played games. Running Wall would go high on the hill and hide in one of the six small caves he had found. Then he would call his friendly bird. "M-o-o-r-o-o. M-o-o-r-o-o." Deep as a drum would his voice sound as it echoed off the walls of the cave and off the broad face of Vinegar Hill. And high above, in the clouds, in the vast fields of the sun, flying as an arrow might fly from the great bow of Matooka, Mooroo would zoom through the air to find his Indian boy. Many times the people in the town heard the sound of Running Wall's voice coming out of the cave and never knew what it was. Sometimes, on gray days, they thought it was distant thunder. Sometimes they thought it was wind hitting on the hill and running down the river valley. But they never thought it was Running Wall calling for his bird.

And one night about a year later, when Running Wall had forgotten about the pirates and Chunto-wan was too old to remember, the pirate captain, driven by the weight of the curse and all the trouble which had fallen on his ship, again brought his ship up the river under the cover of darkness.

He came with one purpose, to kill of the remainder of the tribe; to kill off Chunto-wan the elder and the little boy who had fought so fiercely.

"Easy, lads," he said. "No lanterns lest they see us and run off in the night. And no noise. I'll cut the heart out of the first man jack of you that makes a sound." And over the side of the ship came a large chest filled with the plunder of their travels. Gold was in it, raw and beautiful, and jewels that would put the sun and moon to shame! And Spanish silver and Spanish gold with their own gleam.

"Why do we bury it here, cap'n?" said one of the crew. "Is not this where all our ills started? Davey gone blind. Seven times our sails ripped. Scurvy in the crew. Our water bad who knows how many times. Myself with `alf an arm gone. Do we dare to fool about with these savages again?"

"Aye, lad," the captain said. "Most would dare not return, but if we bury our gold, all our treasure, in the same grave with one of these savages, if we send him off to the happy hunting grounds with his poke full, we might ease the temper of the curse. It's all I can think of. Now get on with your work, you one-armed devil, or I'll cut the other off and balance you out."

Running Wall and Chunto-wan had no chance. Before they realized it, they were bound hand and foot.

"Where do we bury it, cap'n?" the one-armed man said.

"On top of the hill, fool. "'Tis a journey up no one would think we'd try. Up top there. Dig it down or put it someplace secret we find up there."

"And which of these savages do we bury with it?"

"The young one," the captain said.

"And the other?"

"The knife, lad. The knife. And quick and easy."

Chunto-wan the elder, next to the last of the Eleventh Tribe of Matooka of the North, died with his arms and legs tied by a heavy rope.

"Heave him into the river," the captain said.

Running Wall spoke up. "Undo his ropes, please, so that he may swim to meet the Great Spirit. If you do not, a greater curse will follow you."

The pirate captain knew what an evil thing a curse was, how it could run like scurvy through his crew. With a slash of his knife Chunto-wan's binds were cut and he was thrown into the river. Running Wall was happy that Chunto-wan was free. For himself he had no fear. He was the last of the Eleventh Tribe of Matooka. He was courage itself. Pain would not and could not bother him. Dying would mean a reunion with all his people. It would be greatness itself to fly in the fields of the sun or swim in the great waters again.

From out of a teepee came the one-armed man. "Aye, cap'n, lookee `ere what we `ave. Will you look at this bird they `ave in a cage. "Tis a strange beauty of a kind I never did see. Almost shines in the dark `e does."

A spasm of fear leaped through Running Wall. "You killed her once, evil one. Do not kill her again.

"What do you mean I killed her once?" the captain said.

"That bird is my sister come back to me," Running Wall said. "It is White Fir herself."

The captain laughed. "Hear that, lads? His sister he says."

"We laughed once," one of the crew said. "Wouldn't pay well to laugh again. If she was magic enough to curse our ship, she's magic enough to become a bird."

This time the captain did not laugh. He held the cage in his hand and looked closely at the bird. "The colors are right," he said. "Perhaps we'd best take her along, the way we meant to on the last trip."

"Don't take my bird," yelled Running Wall. "You can't take her."

"Hanged if the lad doesn't believe it," the captain said. "Knock his head once or twice so he won't yell again."

Running Wall was knocked unconscious. He and the chest were carried up to the top of Vinegar Hill. His eyes opened when they reached the top of the hill. The cage in which Mooroo slept was gone.

"Where is my bird?" Running Wall said.

"Aboard the ship, lad, aboard the ship. We'll fight a curse with a curse."

"You can't take her from me!" yelled Running Wall.

"Shall I knock `im again, cap'n? said the one-armed man.

"No bother," the captain said. "His voice will be lost in the wind up here. Now drop the chest down in this here hole and him with it."

The chest of treasure and Running Wall, the last of the Eleventh Tribe of Matooka, were dropped into a small cave. Rocks were dropped down on top of them. Running Wall began to call. "M-o-o-r-o-o! M-o-o-r-o-o! M-o-o-r-o-o!" the sound of his voice sending shivers through each pirate. Their blood felt chill, and even the evil captain, who was a great fighter, felt a strange kind of fear in his bones.

"Fill it quickly, my ugly ones!" he shouted, "and we'll be off from this cursed place. My blood feels like ice and I see strange shadows moving around. Brace yourselves for trouble, lads."

But all that came at them were the weird moaning cries of Running Wall in his grave as he continued to call out for his lost bird.

When the last rocks were thrown down on the grave, the pirates ran down the side of the hill toward their ship. All the way down the cries of Running Wall chased them. "M-o-o-r-o-o! M-o-o-r-o-o! M-o-o-r-o-o!"

It seemed to come from every tree and every rock, from the valley, from the river, from the top of the hill as if a great horn were sounding. In the rigging of the ship they could hear it. In the compartments and squalid quarters of the ship the sound knew no end. It bounced off the waters of the river and came out of the skies as if the stars and the moon itself were crying. It leaped from the marsh grasses and the cat'o nine tail standing like rockets along the banks as if a wind were whipping them. The sound leaped up and down. It echoed in stone and metal. It echoed even in the spars and masts and planking of the ship. And it came upon them as the great sails were dropped and filled with wind.

And it came from the cage of the bird hanging on a rope from a crossarm of the ship, as if the bird were calling itself.

They say no matter where that pirate ship went in all its days, the sound of Running Wall's voice came after it. And the wind never took pity on them. And their water was never good. And the crew got sicker and sicker. And when the moon shone across the golden sea, the skies filled with a sound that made their blood forever cold.

And now, on nights when the moon is bright or hidden away, and the earth is silent, when Halloween spirits scamper in glory or darkness and a strange feeling is in the crisp air, the top of Vinegar Hill echoes a cry that comes out of the rock itself, such that only those who hear it can believe it.

In the Long Waters of the North, Matooka calls his people. In the waters of the Saugus River, White Fir shines with the moon and calls for Matooka. In the stone of Vinegar Hill, in the very stone of Pirates Glen and Pirates Rock, from the stones and boulders near O'Neil's Very Own Swamp, from the whole hill, Running Wall calls for his bird, and only the night people can hear it.

"M-o-o-r-o-o! M-o-o-r-o-o! M-o-o-r-o-o!"

Shrill, blood curdling, somehow empty of meaning, the words sit out there in the darkness, night after night after night, telling of an old sadness, telling of fright.

Continue to the 1st place story

[home] [up]
Copyright © 1999 & Tom Sheehan;
See original rules for an explanation