bY bETH dODD:
It was a dark and stormy night. “But it doesn’t really matter when you’re underground for the night shift,” thought Tommy. So he joined the crew of Cripple Creek’s Golden Calf Mine and headed down the elevator shaft as usual. The hoist creaked and groaned as the cage full of working men was lowered into the earth, leaving behind a cold wind and the smell of approaching snow.
After a couple hours of grueling work, Tommy stopped to stretch his aching shoulders. He was alone at the end of a drift, mucking out the freshly broken pile of rock and debris from the day shift’s blasting. He reached for his lunch bucket, but it wasn’t there. Grumbling, he retraced his steps back to the elevator. Sure enough, there was his pail, right where he must have left it. Normally he would have eaten alone in the drift, but since he was already back by the elevator cage he decided to make the most of it.
“Oi, Jack!” he called to one of his fellow miners. “Time for a bite.”
Jack and Tommy sat down together to enjoy the tea and pasties packed for them by Tommy’s re-headed wife Jenny. For desert there was pumpkin bread. “Happy Halloween, cousin!” declared Jack as they clanked their tin cups of tea together in a toast.
All too soon it was time to get back to the business of mining. Tommy left the last bite of his desert and the crust of his pasty by the wall as he stood up to return to work. Jack raised a questioning eyebrow at him. “For the knockers.” Tommy said, shrugging his shoulders.
“You aren’t still carrying on with that foolishness, are you?” asked Jack scornfully. “The tommyknockers are just an old tale our Gram told us as tots to pass the winter nights back in Cornwall.” He laughed and spat in the direction of Tommy’s offering to the tommyknockers, whistling as he returned to his tools. Whistling underground was a sure way to anger the tommyknockers, and Jack often did it to tease Tommy.
“Couldn’t hurt,” claimed Tommy to Jack’s retreating figure as he headed back down to the tunnel to his drift. Tommy well remembered their grandmother’s tales of the tommyknockers. She had told them many times how their grandfather had worked in a copper mine when he was a young man. One terrible day there had been a collapse, but he had survived because he’d heard the knockers tapping on the rocks to warn him.
Although she’d died before his parents had left for America, Tommy could still hear his grandmother’s voice warning him to always respect the knockers to prevent them from playing tricks on him. The knockers were the ghosts of trapped miners who had died underground, or maybe the spirits of ancient Roman slaves condemned to a lifetime of labor in the tin mines. Either way, they were friendly enough if you were mindful. Tommy left offerings for them occasionally in memory of her.
Tommy quickly arrived back at the end of his drift, ready to finish clearing away the rock from the day shift’s blasting. He must have it all moved before the end of the night, or there’d be hell to pay with the foreman. To his frustration, his shovel was gone. He swore softly to himself. He must have carried it away with him at lunch. He retraced his steps to the spot near the cage where he’d eaten with Jack. Sure enough, there it was against the wall. He couldn’t recall carrying it out of the drift. The fatigue of his long nights underground must be getting to him.
Back Tommy went to his pile of ore where he was soon hard at it. When he had moved all but the biggest pieces of rock into the nearby mine cart, he reached for his pick to reduce them to a manageable size. No pick. This time he swore loud and long. It was like he wasn’t meant to get any work done in the drift that night. For the third time, he returned to the cage, and there was his pick. How the devil had it gotten out there? The foreman glared at Tommy as he went back to work again. In his hurry to make up his lost time, he almost slipped in a puddle of water on the floor.
Swinging his pick high over his head and down upon the first oversized rock, Tommy heard it. From the ceiling above him came a distinctive tapping, like someone pounding with a rock against the other side of the wall. He stopped to listen, but heard nothing more. He lifted his pick, and once again heard the sound. Stopping mid-swing, he gently rested the head of the pick on the floor, and then for a third time heard a tapping above his head.
Tommy looked up to find the source of the sound and froze. From the ceiling there came a slow but steady drip of water. As he watched, a single drop fell and landed in the growing puddle at his feet. For the first time in all his years working underground, Tommy felt a surge of intense claustrophobia. He suddenly knew why his things had been disappearing all night, and who was knocking on the ceiling of the mine.
Tommy dropped his pick and ran for the cage. Once at the elevator, he rang the hoist bell seven times, the signal for an emergency. The other men came running from all over the mine. Jack was the first one to reach the cage. “Are you hurt Tommy?” he cried.
“No, but the mine is about to flood. We have to get out right now,” responded a breathless Tommy.
Jack’s worried face turned angry. “Are you daft? You’ll be fired for making a false signal with the bell!”
“I heard the knockers Jack, like Grand-dad. Please!”
Jack stared at him in amazement. “Have you been drinking, Tom?”
“Please come, Jack! Everyone! ” Tommy’s desperate, frightened eyes swept over the faces of each of the gathered miners.
The foreman stepped forward. “Anyone who leaves in the middle of their shift because of this malarkey needn’t bother coming back again,” he warned. No one moved.
Tommy got into the elevator alone and rang three bells to signal the hoist engineer to take him up. He and Jack stared at each other as the cage rose, until they could no longer see one another.
Many years later, sitting by the fire on another stormy Halloween night, Tommy remembered that last long look. He still desperately wished he’d been able to convince his cousin Jack and the other men to get into the cage with him on that fateful night.
On that long ago Halloween, as soon as Tommy had reached the surface, the sound of seven bells had rung out again. The hoist operator had lowered the elevator as fast as he dared while Tommy begged him to hurry, and had pulled out only the anguished foreman and two others, soaked to their skins and terrified. Jack had not been one of them.
While Tommy mused, he chewed his pumpkin bread and raised his cup of tea in a silent toast to Jack’s memory, as he had every Halloween since the flooding of the Golden Calf Mine. His wife Jenny, now more grey-haired than red-haired, sat across the room in her rocking chair telling tales to their grandchildren, warning them to be wary of the tommyknockers.