CEMENT, Okla. — Bud Hardcastle and Charlie Holman figure the Confederacy never truly surrendered. Its leaders simply buried their dreams for the day the South would rise again.

After 30 years of research, Hardcastle and Holman are convinced that enterprising disciples of Dixie stashed millions of dollars in gold and silver — now probably worth billions — in locations across North America, including Oklahoma and possibly northeast Texas, to help finance a second Civil War.

"The true story of the South's never been told," said Holman, a balding, 56-year-old denturist and former three-time state high school wrestling champion. "A lot of Southerners know the story, but they've not told anyone."

Enough buried booty has been recovered over the past century to ignite a prairie fire of interest in treasure hunting — hundreds of real-life Indiana Joneses scouring remote terrain from Canada to Mexico for what they believe is a mother lode of antique coins and rare documents.

It's an often-quirky subculture that deploys high-tech gear and old-fashioned detective work in a quest to unravel the secrets of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a pro-South society credited with masterminding the elaborate underground financial network.

"The money would be wonderful, but I set out to prove the truth," said Hardcastle, a portly, 66-year-old used-car dealer who learned of the secretive pro-South group through his fascination with legendary outlaw Jesse James. Hardcastle now thinks that Jesse James, a Missouri guerrilla fighter during the Civil War and train and bank robber afterward, was "comptroller of the KGC." He says he thinks that finding the loot could also help him determine the truth about how — and when — the outlaw actually died.

According to some treasure hunters, burial was the surest means at the time of protecting the fortune that included gold and silver from the Confederate treasury, donations from Southern sympathizers, war-time raids on northern banks and postwar robberies.

No single ledger or document has been recovered that details the extent of the earthen deposits. But treasure hunters said they have uncovered evidence of an intricate, geometric grid system used to determine the locations of hidden loot across North America.

Further, they said, it appears the Knights of the Golden Circle built a network of sentries who knew the location of each cache, protected it during their lifetimes, then shared the information with subsequent generations.

On a recent spring day, Holman and Hardcastle hiked to near the summit of Buzzard's Roost, a peculiar, rocky hill near this tiny burg, about 65 miles from Oklahoma City.

Amid a howling, 40-mph-plus wind, they described four different discoveries of buried treasure since the early 1900s, all within a quarter-mile of the southwestern Oklahoma landmark.

They also pointed out what they believe are coded messages carved into rock that the Knights may have left as clues.

"This was a hot spot," Hardcastle said. "This was Indian Territory — it was a good place for them to come" because it offered an almost unlimited number of hideouts and few authorities.

As they scaled Buzzard's Roost, Holman and Hardcastle looked less like the dashing figures of Hollywood's Indiana Jones trilogy than the crotchety but charming characters of "Grumpy Old Men."

But these men are serious. They've devoted more than 30 years — and more than $100,000 each — to chasing the secrets of the South, hoping to unravel mysteries that involve clandestine networks of Confederate loyalists, Southern sympathizers in the North and bandits like James.

In his pursuit of James, Hardcastle spent about $9,000 on legal fees that led to the exhumation in Granbury, Texas, of what he thought was James' body. It wasn't, but he now believes that the grave was misidentified by one plot.

Now, he figures his pursuit of the Knights of the Golden Circle treasure may be a faster route to the truth about James.

It's a two-fisted, hard-nosed world where few are willing to talk much about their successes or join forces, afraid they'll be double-crossed and lose out on a discovery.

Hardcastle and Holman said they learned hard lessons about sharing information: In one case, other treasure hunters they befriended went behind their backs and unearthed the loot. All Hardcastle got from the discovery was an 1880 silver dollar.

"Ninety-eight percent of treasure hunters," Holman said, "aren't worth the powder it would take to blow their butt off."

Another time, about a decade ago, Hardcastle was asked by a landowner to search his land and found an old Wells Fargo safe. He was asked to leave before the safe was opened, but he said he believed it contained KGC money.

As far as any other treasures he may have discovered, Hardcastle said, "If I did (find any), I wouldn't own up to it."

He and Hardcastle joined forces in 1988. Since then, they've clomped through overgrown fields together, dodging rattlesnakes and mountain lions. They've climbed hills and small mountains to study signs of Knight activity. Hardcastle even lowered Holman 15 feet by rope into a dark cave believed to be a James hideout where treasure could be buried, but much of it had caved in.

Hardcastle and Holman are working several promising leads, using newly acquired night cameras to investigate particularly dense, rugged areas. Neither will say where.

Bob Brewer, an Arkansas-based treasure hunter who co-authored the book Shadow of the Sentinel: One Man's Quest to Find the Hidden Treasure of the Confederacy, said he, too, believes he is close to a major breakthrough.

But he declined, for now, to be interviewed at length — at least in part, he said, because treasure hunting can be dangerous.

"People will kill you for a six-pack of beer," he said.

The Knights of the Golden Circle was formed in the early 1850s in Ohio to help expand pro-slavery interests.

With defeat of the South, some historians say, the Knights went underground, strategically hiding money across North America for the day the South would rise again.

An elaborate grid system may have been devised by the KGC, many modern-day treasure hunters say, to hide its booty in caves or bury it.

The group apparently left clues, carving Latin phrases, code words, gun barrels and animals into stone and tree trunks to point the way. They also bent over seedlings, burying the tops in the ground, to create archways that some treasure hunters refer to as "Hoot Owl trees" in honor of legendary train robber Jesse James, who many think was a devotee to the KGC's cause.

How much has been recovered is not known. Treasure hunters are often tight-lipped, fearing they'll be double-crossed or someone will beat them to the big payday, or that the federal government will stake a claim — or demand taxes be paid.

Several treasure hunters confirm a major find about a decade ago on a farm in southeastern Oklahoma. Some say they believe that close to $1 million was recovered — and that one gold piece was valued at more than $14,000.

One area that treasure hunter Bud Hardcastle says has yielded at least four recoveries in the last 100 years has been the area within a quarter-mile of Buzzard's Roost, a rocky hill on the Oklahoma prairie near Cement, Okla.

A man claiming to be James' brother, Frank, dug up about $6,000 due east of Buzzard's Roost not long after statehood in 1907, according to published reports.

Hardcastle said he was at the hill studying the carvings about a decade ago when a nearby property owner asked him to search his land for buried treasure. He said he studied the carvings and zeroed in on an area of the man's property, then, using a metal detector, found an old Wells Fargo safe buried under cap rock.

DESERET MORNING NEWS, SUNDAY, MAY 29, 2005 A19