The morning sun hid behind a hotchpotch of marching grey clouds and then suddenly broke free, showering the travellers with its warm, tickling rays for a moment. George halted and surveyed the ever changing landscape about him. What a difference sunlight made! A lifeless canvas had been suddenly transformed through strokes of light, and now even the ditches and flat grazing fields seemed like a picture from paradise. The birds also erupted into song as if to celebrate with them. The overhanging trees refracted the golden light into piercing rays that danced over Katie and Dougie. Katie’s fair hair burst into golden fire, and even Dougie’s deep black hair softened into a fathomless deep blue.
“Now, if only it would stay like this awhile,” Katie said.
“That’s an Irish sun my dad once told me,” Dougie said wistfully. “Only here can you have rain, hail, and sunshine all within five minutes. And that’s just in the summer.”
“Those clouds,” George pointed toward a particularly menacing formation, “won’t take long to reach us. We need to hurry.”
With that, they continued their journey along the Old Road. It was a quiet, bumpy road, and cars seldom passed by, but that meant that they had to be particularly observant. For the locals’ sped down the narrow road and, with only a strip of grass between them and roadside ditch, they were forced to walk single file much of the time.
George checked his inside pocket for the umpteenth time. Yes, the map was still there. It was a relief to be finally on their way to the quarry. It had been the longest four weeks of his life since they had decided to use the ‘treasure’ map. The white heat of enthusiasm had gradually cooled as one delay after another had halted their investigation. They should have started their treasure hunt weeks ago. They could have already experienced the white-hot anticipation of prising open the treasure chest and the ecstasy of clutching a handful of priceless gems and gold coins.
They should have, but Katie’s parents had grounded her for ‘running away to the Headmaster’s Cave’. Her mum (even though the Curran’s only lived a 10-minute walk from Ballymagee Primary) had driven her to the school gates every morning and was waiting at 3.30 without fail. For three weeks she had called herself ‘Caged Katie’ and complained incessantly about the injustice of her imprisonment, and how lucky George was to have parents who let him ‘run wild’.
On top of that, Dougie had withdrawn into himself. Despite his best efforts, George had been unable to release Dougie from his melancholy. Even when they’d reminisced of their adventures in the Headmaster’s Cave—all the dangers they had faced-down together; the terrible fears they had felt as they crept through the subterranean passages; of Leonard and the pirate map—not even this could lift his spirits. George had even considered telling him about his vision of the White Lady. Yes, it had been only an hallucination, and he certainly would have told Dougie that, but still, he decided against it just in case Dougie thought he was as crazy as Leonard.
Finally, after days of nagging, the reason for Dougie’s blues came to light when he mentioned that he would soon meet his dad for the first time in two years. It had been Dougie’s most ardent wish to see his dad again, and it was natural for him to feel nervous and at least a little apprehensive.
Then, later that week, Dougie had returned to school with a spring in his step. With a letter box grin, Dougie had related—in great detail—his dad’s new life in the ‘big smoke,’ and how he would visit and stay with him during the summer holidays. Who knew what might happen after that? Perhaps a new life with his dad and Melinda, his dad’s new girlfriend. That sounded great—for Dougie—but hopefully, it wouldn’t interfere with their work. They were now treasure hunters, and who knew how long it would take to find it?
“So, what are we going to do with the money?” Dougie asked, rubbing an imaginary bundle of money between his fingers.
“Spend it! I think I’ll buy Flan a new collar—real fancy. Maybe buy Mum and Dad a new car.”
“And your sister?”
“Definitely a big, fat nothing!”
The boys doubled over in laughter.
Katie’s eyes narrowed and her fine-featured face lengthened as she pursed her lips. “What a terrible way to treat your sister.”
George lowered his gaze. “Just joking. Boy, I can’t say anything. Okay, I’d buy her a bike.”
“Anyway,” Katie said, “forget about spending money you don’t have.”
The two boys stared incredulously at each other.
“We don’t even know what the map is for. If it is a treasure map, it’s unlikely that anything’s still there. And even if something’s there, you just can’t take it. There’re laws about these things, you know.”
George rolled his eyes. It was always Katie who brought him back to earth with a thud. “We take the treasure to the museum and get it valued,” he said with a nod towards Katie, “but, you know what they say, Dougie, ‘finders keepers, losers weepers!’”
Another car appeared in the distance. They darted to the side of the road, and the hatchback roared past. They squelched out of the grass and back onto the tarmac.
“I knew I shouldn’t have worn my new trainers,” Katie said, shaking her head.
“It’s not far now. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” George said.
They journeyed on up the humped road. On either side, the scrub was punctuated with the odd tree. In need of a good trim, the overhanging branches arched above them. Adjacent to the road, a herd of curious bullocks shadowed them for a short time, before returning to the succulent grass.
Katie skipped across the road to inspect a shabby cottage. Though still intact, its low-pitched roof was covered with moss and tufts of grass. The front door and casement windows were now nothing more than three yawning gaps.
“It’s derelict, Katie. There’s nothing there,” George said.
Katie peered into the gap that would have once been the left side window. “Someone’s been in here.”
George and Dougie jogged over. There were beer bottles and cigarette stubs littered across the floorboards.
“Probably teenagers,” George said. His face screwed up as he sniffed the foul air.
“Smells like cat’s pee to me,” Dougie said.
“You want to go in?” George asked Katie.
“No way, I’ll catch something if I go in there.”
“Reminds me of Old Maggie’s place,” Dougie said as they crossed to the other side again. “We should visit. See’s how’s she doing.”
“Good idea, Dougie. If you get back in one piece, you can tell us how she is.”
Even Katie let out a laugh as she crossed the road. “Have you taken the grammar entrance test yet?”
Dougie snorted. “I’m going to the High School.”
“Same here. I’d rather go to the High School anyway,” George said.
Katie’s forehead furrowed. “You’re not even going to try? You need to think about your future.” Katie shook her head. “The High School kids don’t want to learn. All they do is fight. Just think, you’ll be going to the same school as Ginger and Ivor.”
George’s Mum had told him something similar. But she had not pushed him. She was far too busy with work to worry about homework, entrance exams, or home tutors. Perhaps she had resigned herself to the fact that (as George himself had often thought) he was not academically minded and certainly not university material. And, truth be told, George wouldn’t have had it any other way. What was the point of worrying about a distant future? Especially as there were so many fun things to do in the present. When they found the treasure, they would be millionaires anyway. Millionaires didn’t need qualifications.
“The High School has a great football team,” George said.
“The Grammar has a great rugby team,” Katie replied.
“I don’t want to play rugby. We’re happy enough going to the High. Aren’t we, Dougie?”
“It gets a bad rap, but it’s the right place for me.”
* * * * * * *
They halted before a high metal gate. Its long spires sharpened into menacing spikes.
“This is new,” George said in a slightly bewildered tone.
“Not a problem,” Dougie said as he pushed it open with his foot.
“Welcome to the quarry, Katie. Today will change our lives forever.”
Katie grunted and then sallied through the open gate. They took the dirt track that curved around to the left. Mounds, or rather hills, of displaced earth and stones, about sixty feet away, formed the small valley on either side of them through which they walked. Round about the boulders, clusters of flowering weeds and shallow pools had to be negotiated.
“Remember we saw the newt here last summer,” George said.
“Aye, a newt, alright,” Dougie said.
“I was surprised as well,” George replied as he eyed the nearest pool. “Just a little further.”
They bounded forward and then the panorama extended to reveal the water filled quarry. The grey clouds, which had already caught up with them, were the same colour as the rippling water, but Nature’s soft tones swirled about them, enhancing the tranquil atmosphere of the quarry.
“I checked it out this morning on Google Maps. It’s nearly fifty metres wide and sixty metres long,” George said, extending his arms to emphasise the expanse.
“It’ll be difficult getting to the other side—it’s sheer cliff,” Katie said.
George removed the map from his jacket’s inside pocket. Dougie and Katie drew in closer as George gently opened the tan, wrinkled map. “I mean, it’s just an X. It’s not very helpful.”
Dougie scratched his head. “This is definitely the place. That has to be Redhall Manor on the map, and it was built in the 18th Century.”
“Late 17th Century, actually,” George corrected.
“Whatever!” Dougie said, emphatically shaking his head. “If you were a pirate where would you hide it?”
“We need a landmark,” Katie said, “something that looks unnatural.”
Dougie walked to the water’s edge and peered in. “There was no water here three hundred years ago, so chances are the treasure’s down there somewhere.”
“Is it deep?” Katie asked.
“Yes, very.” George huffed and kicked a stone into the water. Dougie was right. The quarry would have been flooded long after the death of Anne O’Malley. It would be sheer luck if O’Malley had buried the treasure in an area that had escaped the flood.
The groan of a heavy diesel engine roused them from their contemplations. Three yellow diggers rumbled into the clearing.
“What are they doing here?” George said, his eyebrows squished together in confusion.
The diggers stopped ten feet from them, and a pot-bellied driver clambered out of the one nearest to them. His sneer accentuated his heavy-jowled face.
“This is private property. Now beat it!”
George shook his head. “Our teacher said this is council land.”
“Not anymore. This land belongs to Tam McMaster. Next year this will be Ballymagee’s newest housing estate.”
“What about the ducks?” Dougie said.
“What about the animals that live here?” Katie added.
“What about them? Now clear out before I give you clip behind the ear.”
They slinked past the smirking drivers, who followed on their heels. After they had exited, the digger driver padlocked the gate while the other two workers clipped on a No Trespassing sign.
“That’s that then,” Katie said.
“We’re not going to let a padlocked gate put us off, are we?” George said.
“I don’t have the time,” Katie answered. “We have exams coming up, and then Summer Camp. Anyway, if there is any treasure it’s probably under the water, and if it isn’t it belongs to McMaster. Sorry, George.”
“Yeah, I’ve no time as well. I’ll be visiting Dad soon, and don’t want no trouble from Tam McMaster. He’s the first man of Ballymagee.”
George’s stomach clenched as he heaved himself down the road. He couldn’t lie to himself; he was deeply disappointed about the treasure. As usual, he had let himself get carried away with stupid dreams. But now it wasn’t just about O’Malley’s treasure—it was about the quarry and all the animals who had made it their home. The treasure might be there, or it might have always been pure fantasy, but destroying the quarry for a housing estate was very real, with very real consequences.