Legend has it that as Spanish conquistadors tightened their stranglehold around the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, Montezuma dispatched a cadre of 2,000 warriors to carry the king's treasure to a safe hiding place in the canyons to the north.

Their mandate: Guard the gold until a chosen one would come to reclaim it."They're still there guarding it," says Brandt Child, a Kanab resident who claims to have discovered the long-sought treasure. "Only now, they have the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

Just when the Aztec gold was in reach, it now seems a rare amber-colored snail - protected by the Endangered Species Act - will forever prevent Child from recovering the treasure.

"I can't do anything to my own property that might disturb those snails," he said. "It doesn't look like anyone will get the gold."

Child ardently believes the gold lies hidden in an underwater "trap" below Three Lakes, a popular fishing hole along U.S. 89 in Kane County. The Aztecs, he said, drained the pond, buried the treasure in a chamber inside the sandstone cliff face and then allowed the pond to fill up, blocking any access to the treasure.

Farfetched? Maybe. But in Kanab, legends of Aztec gold and Montezuma's treasure have flourished for decades. In 1922, the town practically shut down as most of the town's residents were caught up in the frenzied search for Aztec gold.

Kanab's unusual fascination with Aztec gold began in 1914 when an eccentric treasure-seeker named Freddie Crystal showed up in Kanab with an old map that purportedly identified nearby Johnson Canyon as the place where the Aztecs had cached their treasure.

Residents dismissed Crystal until 1922 when he discovered a series of tunnels, some of which reportedly had been sealed with rock-hard mortar. The possibility of laying claim to Montezuma's treasure prompted an unparalleled outbreak of gold fever. The town fathers issued "shares" to local citizens in proportion to how much work they did.

No gold was found, and after two years of digging the enthusiasm waned. But Child, who grew up hearing stories of Montezuma's treasure, has remained a believer.

"It made sense to me that all the signs in Johnson Canyon were to throw people off the trail," Child said. "They left the signs there, but went one canyon further west and hid the gold in a water trap. They liked water traps."

Child identified Three Lakes as a likely hiding place. A diver friend explored the 35-foot deep pond, but panicked when he felt himself being swept into an underground tunnel.

Eventually, Child secured four more divers with underwater sonar, metal detectors, communication gear and tetherlines.

"One diver got into the tunnel about 60 or 70 feet when he ran out of safety line," Child said. "That's when his metal detector went off."

The divers returned a couple of weeks later with more safety line, additional oxygen tanks and a contract guaranteeing them 50 percent of anything found. But when they got into the tunnel, Child said, they were greeted by a choking sensation.

"They saw figures and forms and they couldn't breathe. We could hear them screaming to pull them back out," Child said. "All of the divers who tried to get in had the same experience."

Undeterred, Child announced plans to drain the pond. That prompted protests from Kanab Canyon residents who believed draining the pond would affect their culinary and irrigation water.

Child then began purchasing the land around the ponds, planning to punch a tunnel through the red sandstone to the treasure chamber. He had also begun work on a golf course on the property, as well as a campground.

"Then last February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife discovered the amber snail there," he said. "It's so rare, the only place in the world it is found is in those ponds."

Because the snail is an endangered species, the federal government has prohibited Child from doing anything to the property that would disturb the creature, including finishing the golf course, building a campground or searching for Aztec gold.

Child said the government is now appraising the land for possible purchase. "Maybe we'll get our gold from the government and the Aztecs will get to keep their treasure," he said.