This story is by William Wedgwood Hawkesworth and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
By 1910, Patrick had been working in the mines of Butte, Montana for more than a decade. He was no stranger to the dark and dangerous working conditions deep beneath The Richest Hill on Earth.
Body chiseled by years of hard labor; he was formidable, fearless, and literate. No one dared mess with him.
“Psst, did you hear, Friday night, Patrick knocked out the foreman’s brother in their bareknuckle boxing bout,” the miners whispered. “Yeah, they call him Patrick the Punisher,” adding, “the boss is mad.”
One name, however, gave Patrick chills every time he heard it, the Tommyknocker. The legend of these mischievous spirits spooked him.
The men would gather for lunch in a cutout. Passing the time by telling tall tales about the legends of the past and reminiscing about their homelands. Their stories were laced with myths and superstitions.
“The Tommyknockers are trapped souls. Miners, who were killed without warning. Now… they wander the tunnels… watching over us… seeking redemption,” said the young wide-eyed Cornish miner.
Patrick smiled, thinking, “best to be quiet.”
He listened, reading a book, neither superstitious nor religious. His faith had been shaken by all the death and suffering he had witnessed over the years.
He even stopped going to church.
“I do not believe in a benevolent God, gnomes or even spirits roaming the tunnels and watching over us,” he smirked.
“I will believe it when I see it. I am the Captain of My Soul,” he told his buddies at lunch while eating his “letter from home.” A beef filled pasty, baked with love by his wife Katie. A religious, devout Irish Catholic.
Year after year, Patrick kept returning home unscathed, while other husbands were killed or injured. Katie would say, “Patrick, you are protected by a guardian ángel.”
The legend of the Tommyknockers evolved and grew. And so did the respect and reverence the miners had for these mythical beings. Everyone but Patrick.
Every knock, every creak within the mine’s walls was seen as a message from the Tommyknocker, a signal to the miners to proceed with caution or to retreat.
The Tommyknocker became an embodiment of the miners’ hopes and fears. A testament to their enduring resilience.
At lunch when Patrick listened to miners talking about mysterious knocking sounds and some claiming to have seen the Tommyknocker himself, he would roll his eyes.
He was agnostic, until that fateful day that changed him forever.
Arriving at the mine’s entrance and clocking in, Patrick stood ten feet from the shaft waiting for the cage. Entering the cage, or chippy as it was called, with lunch pail in hand, he complained, “they pack us in, like sardines.”
The jarring ring of the bell sent his heart racing in anticipation of the dizzying descent into the underworld. Swish, with a rush and stomach lurching, he dropped like a boulder.
The shaking and banging of the chippy against the shaft walls sent shivers down his spine. And bam, with boots bouncing off the floor, he stopped.
Patrick left his friends at various levels. Last to depart, he began working in a tunnel where they had just blasted the rock and were putting up wooden roofs.
He was not pleased with the treacherous job of prying loose the slabs of unstable rocks. “This work is for greenhorns,” he complained.
The sharp, protruding slabs were called duggans. All seasoned miners knew duggans. “Hell, the funeral parlor is called Duggans because of all the men that got diced upped by those nasty rocks,” he thought. “Jaspers, why me?… ah… the boss’s brother,” he reminded himself.
Carefully removing the slabs, he heard a faint knocking in the distance.
At first, he attributed it to the natural settling of the rocks, but the rhythmic tapping persisted. And it got louder.
It was coming from deep within the granite wall, like a metallic heartbeat echoing through the solid stone. A cold shiver ran down his spine as he remembered the tales of the Tommyknockers.
Then he saw an image in the shadows of the tunnel. He squinted his eyes. A flickering light from a lantern revealed a ghostly figure.
Standing two feet tall with a large head, long arms, short legs, wrinkled skin, white whiskers, dressed in miner’s attire, was a ghost? a gnome? a miner?
“What… is that …?” he gasped.
“Hey you there… Hey, you…, what are you doing?” he shouted.
Patrick froze, squeezing his pickaxe tightly in his hand, waiting for an answer.
“Hey, stop the knocking,” he yelled. The figure ignored his calls and instead the knockings grew louder and more insistent.
Patrick began walking toward the ghostly sight.
“Hey, you there, can you hear me?” he shouted louder.
The ghost stopped knocking. Turning his head he stared into Patrick’s eyes.
Patrick felt a cold shiver run through his body as the black, hollow eyes of the ghoul made contact. It scared the hell out of him. But there was something odd.
Wanting to get a better look, he moved closer. The ghost dropped his pickaxe and took off down the tunnel.
Looking back, smiling, and egging Patrick on.
Taking a few more steps, Patrick began chasing after him. Then just like that the ghost vanished.
Patrick stopped and looked around shining his carbide lantern back and forth in the dark tunnel, but nothing was there.
Just as he was about to retreat, there was a sudden and violent shift in the tunnel. A loud crash echoed as a section of the roof collapsed behind him, effectively sealing him in.
His heart pounded as he realized he was trapped.
The dirt settled. Patrick patted himself up and down sighing, “jaspers, lucky me, those damn duggans missed.”
The collapse occurred right where he had been standing moments before. If not for the knocking and the ghost that drew him further into the tunnel, he would have been crushed.
Disoriented and packed in tight by dirt, he was barely able to move. And labored to breathe.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and blowing his nose, he rubbed the dirt from his eyes and face and started feeling around in the dark, finding his smashed lantern.
“The soil is loose. I can dig my way out. I have some air. Got to get out, before I suffocate. The minutes are passing by. I am getting dizzy; I am dying,” Patrick started to panic.
Gasping for oxygen, whispering, “this will not be my coffin. I WILL NOT DIE HERE. I need air. But which way?”
Dark and eerily quiet, he tried to remain calm as the earth above him started shifting again and soil began seeping through the wooden roof.
It was ready to cave in at any moment.
Patrick the Punisher prayed, “God which way… damn it…, which way? Amen.”
Then he heard a faint knock.
Again, another knock and then another one.
The knockings got louder.
The sound was coming off to the left of his shoulder. He repositioned himself, frantically digging in the direction of the knocking.
Using his pickaxe, he removed the dirt, creating a small opening. Swish, the fresh air rushed in, Patrick took a deep breath, exhaling in relief.
Removing the debris, he made the hole larger.
His heart jumped for joy when he saw the light shining in the tunnel. Looking closer he saw the ghost dangling a lantern. And once again, their eyes met.
This time the ghostly figure looked more human than ghost. Transformed.
There was a sparkle in his soft brown eyes, and a warm glow graced his wrinkled face.
He doffed his soiled cap. And with a look of redemption, he turned away, walked down the tunnel, and disappeared.
Patrick pulled himself clear of the rubble. “How lucky am I,” he shouted.
Adrenalin subsiding, breathing normally he stood upright. And bowed his head.
“I feel more alive than ever… thank you God…, thank you God… for sending me a Tommyknocker. Amen,” whispered Patrick.
His embellished, eyewitness account, with its chilling detail and near-death experience, was passed from miner to miner.
Adding a fresh layer of credence to the legendary myth.
Patrick reassured his buddies, “you need not worry, you are being watched over.”
When Katie Heard about his encounter. She was so relieved and grateful that he was unharmed that she said, “Patrick, we need to honor the Tommyknocker.”
Patrick agreed and purchased a statue of a Tommyknocker at Hennessy’s Department Store.
He proudly displayed it in their home. A man with a testimony, he went back to church every Sunday. Even stopped boxing.
The statue was prominently placed on the mantle in the parlor above the fireplace, centered below a large wooden crucifix.
Everyone could see it.
When asked about the statue, Patrick recounted his story, giving glory to God.
Once a skeptic, he was born again.
He became a fervent disciple, believing in the life-saving power of his guardian ángel.
Telling all, the tall tale, of the Tommyknocker.