I know where $15 million in gold, silver and jewels lies buried in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and I'm going to tell.

This vast treasure, amounting to four tons of gold and silver plus about a bushel of jewels, is known as the Beale Hoard. It's been there for more than 160 years, its location concealed by a code that the world's greatest cryptanalysts have tried and failed to crack.

Hundreds of people have spent thousands of man-years looking for Beale's bullion, and not a few of them have gone broke and/or crazy in the process. It's very likely the biggest treasure hunt in history and has consumed the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a leading authority.

The treasure was mined -- some say looted -- in the wild west by a party of 30 adventurers led by a Virginia gentleman namd Thomas Jefferson Beale. The expedition set out in 1817 and hunted and explored as far west as Santa Fe and central Colorado, where they stumbled on an outcrop of rich gold ore. In 1819 and again in 1821, Beale brought back wagonloads of the precious metals and jewels and buried them near Buford's Tavern, now known as Montvale, a small community north of Roanoke and west of Lynchburg.

In 1822, before heading west for the third time, Beale left a locked iron box with tavernkeeper Robert Morriss, telling him to open it 10 years hence if nobody had called for it in the meantime. Neither Beale nor any of his companions was ever heard from again, all apparently having been killed by Indians.

Morriss was a busy man, and it was 23 years hence -- 1845 -- before he got around to breaking open the box. In it he found three sets of ciphers and a letter describing the western adventures. There was also a note saying the key to the ciphers would be supplied later, which it wasn't, and that Beale would write Morriss from St. Louis, which he didn't.

Since the letter also said a portion of the treasure would go to Morriss for his trouble, he quite energetically undertook to crack the code. As the fruitless years went by, Morriss' spirit remained willing, but his flesh weakened. On his deathbed, in 1863, he gave the matter over into the hands of his friend James B. Ward, a prosperous and well-regarded citizen of Lynchburg. After years and years and years Ward discovered that Code No. 2 was a "book cipher" based on the Declaration of Independence. The plaintext read as follows (punctuation has been added for clarity):

I HAVE DEPOSITED IN THE COUNTY OF BEDFORD, ABOUT FOUR MILES FROM BUFORD'S, IN AN EXCAVATION OR VAULT SIX FEET BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE GROUND, THE FOLLOWING ARTICLES BELONGING JOINTLY TO THE PARTIES WHOSE NAMES ARE GIVEN IN NUMBER 3 HEREWITH: THE FIRST DEPOSIT CONSISTED OF ONE THOUSAND AND FOURTEEN POUNDS OF GOLD AND THREE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED AND TWELVE POUNDS OF SILVER, DEPOSITED NOVEMBER 1819. THE SECOND WAS MADE DECEMBER 1821 AND CONSISTED OF NINETEEN HUNDRED AND SEVEN POUNDS OF GOLD AND TWELVE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-EIGHT POUNDS OF SILVER; ALSO JEWELS OBTAINED IN ST. LOUIS IN EXCHANGE FOR SILVER TO SAVE TRANSPORTATION, AND VALUED AT $13,000. THE ABOVE IS SECURELY PACKED IN IRON POTS WITH IRON COVERS. THE VAULT IS ROUGHLY LINED WITH STONE AND THE VESSELS REST ON SOLID STONE, AND ARE COVERED WITH OTHERS. PAPER NUMBER 1 DESCRIBES THE EXACT LOCALITY OF THE VAULT, SO THAT NO DIFFICULTY WILL BE HAD IN FINDING IT.

Attentive readers will have noticed that the account set forth hereinabove is as full of holes as swiss cheese and reeks like limburger. Many experts have denounced the Beale Hoard as a hoax, on both historical and cryptanalytical grounds. This is your next-to-last warning. Ward labored the rest of his life to decipher Codes 1 and 3. In 1885, despairing of both the solutions and his life, he published the whole story in a pamphlet designed to sell for 50 cents. In it he also described the melancholy consequences of taking the matter too seriously: "Before giving the papers to the public, I would say a word to those who may take an interest in them, and give them a little advice, acquired by bitter experience. It is, to devote only such time as can be spared from your legitimate business to the task, and if you can spare no time, let the matter alone. Should you disregard my advice, do not hold me responsible that the poverty you have courted is more easily found than the accomplishment of your wishes, and I would avoid the sight of another reduced to my condition." That was your last warning.. When he started his search for the Beale Hoard, Ward had been the owner of, among other things, real estate valued at $10,000. He died a pauper, and never even made anything on the pamplet, because nearly the whole press run was destroyed in a fire at the printing plant in Lynchburg. But hot dog. The search goes on! All over the world there are people, many of them learned and at least moderately famous, struggling to puzzle out those tantalizing strings of coded digits. And down in Bedford County the hills are crawling with folks who think they know or nearly know or know nearly where that vault is. The county also is bristling with angry landowners, some of them armed, who are damn tired of being badgered by treasure hunters, yea, even unto the third and fourth generation. Searchers have been known to sneak in at night, sometimes with bulldozers and dynamite, hoping to grab the loot and scoot. Marilyn Parsons, 52, is back home in Reading, Pennsylvania, with her terrier Muffin, after spending two months in the Bedford County Jail for felonious desecration of a cemetery near Montvale. She just knew Beale had hidden the stuff in plain sight, so to speak, using phony graves marked by coded gravestones. But the backhoe she hired turned up instead the thighbone of a citizen who hitherto had rested in peace. The graveyard theory is popular among Bealers, and there's certainly plenty to work with, there being more than forty cemeteries within about four miles of Montvale. But it's wrong. I know because the real solution to Cipher No. 1 is as follows:

FROM BUFORDS GO NORTH FIVE MILES ON THE BUCHANAN ROAD UNTIL THE PEAKS OF OTTER LINE UP. GET DOWN AND FOLLOW THE STREAM. TAKE THE WEST FORK TO WHERE IT PASSES THE DOUBLE OAK AND THE DOUBLE PINE. TWO RODS NNE 9north-northeast0 IS A BOLDER [sic] GRAVED WITH A B. FROM BOLDER NINE RODS SOUTH OF WEST IS A FLAT STONE. DIG THERE.

That solution comes to you free of charge because that's the way it came to me, 13 years ago, from a correspondent who gave no return address but said he would get in touch with me later, after he shook the people who had been following him and tapping his phone and listening at his walls. He said if I didn't hear from him in a year he'd be dead and the treasure would be mine. I would go and dig it up, but I have this bad back . . . . Carl Hammer, Ph.D., who probably knows more about the Beale treasure than anybody else, was not surprised to hear that I had the solution. "I would be surprised if you did not," he said. "I have seen dozens of solutions, scores of solutions, hundreds of solutions, I think. Some of them look very good, and all of them are very wrong. But there is a solution, I believe. The ciphers are real, not just random-number garbage." He grinned and waved his gin-and-tonic at the reams of documents spread out in his Georgetown living room. "Of course the message may be garbage, something like 'HA HA THE JOKES ON YOU I TOOK THE MONEY AND RAN,' but I don't care abou membership embraces all sorts and conditions of persons, the only requirement being fascination with the subject. There are four broad classifications of Beale researchers: the number-crunchers, the pencil-chewers, the historians and the psychics. Number-cruncher Hammer and his peers use computers -- including the latest, state-of-the-art supermachines capable of millions of calculations per second -- to seek subtle relationships among the Beale cipher digits. "I can say without any exaggeration whatsoever that computer time spent on this, if rented at normal rates, would amount to well over a hundred million dollars," Hammer says. "But it has not been wasted, no, indeed: It has led to some wonderfully elegant thinking and some absolutely stunning methods of attack that have advanced the art of computer programming. And in science, you know, negative results are also results." Add in a reasonable hourly value for the man-hours spent and you get well over another hundred million dollars, Hammer says, never mind such field expenses as gas and oil and bulldozers and dynamite. The pencil-chewers combine a knowledge of how ciphers are made with an intuitive sense of why people make them. They were the masters of cryptanalysis for centuries up to World War II, when machine-generated ciphers took over. Sometimes they take wonderful shots in the dark, but frustration and wishful thinking often lead them to force solutions by making assumptions and exceptions that lead to such results as:

CEMETERY OFF GAP / TOOK RIDGE / PINEWOOD 4 M / NORTH TOP OF HOLCOMBS ROCK / RIGGED A BOOM OF LOGS / GOLD ORE HID / BARGE HOLDING TUBS / CABOCHONS FACE LIDS / BUFORD VA / VAULT CACHE OF GOLD / TB.

"Solutions" like that appear again and again in the association's newsletter. The historians sift musty courthouse records and files of crumbling newspapers. They've been getting mixed results which they've been having a fine time flinging at each other, occasionally spiced with epithets. It has been proved to just about everybody's satisfaction that Ward and Morriss existed, and that Beale may well have; that such western adventures were quite common at the time; that gold and silver were mined in quantity in several areas "about 250 miles north of Santa Fe," and so on. But as every genealogical researcher knows, there's a terrible temptation to force missing links into a fragmentary historical chain, and many a Bealer has yielded, including two whose books about the case amount to novels. There's a subset of historians who apply the tests of ogic and likelihood to the documents. We enthusiasts don't like them much, because they keep asking uncomfortable questions, such as "Why did Beale tell us in Code 2 what Codes 1 and 3 contained, when presumably we'd have them all decoded at the same time?" "Why, when painfully encoding the message by his slow and cumbersome method, did he throw in such extra verbiage as BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE GROUND and THE ABOVE IS SECURELY PACKED IN IRON POTS WITH IRON COVERS ?" And they perform the sort of linguistic analyses that show James B. Ward and Thomas Jefferson Beale used so nearly the same words in so nearly the same way as to make it nearly impossible for a reasonable person to avoid the conclusion that they were the same man. Most visible of all the searchers are the psychics, such as a gentleman of Maine whose believes Cipher No. 1 "was in fact written by Thomas Jefferson . . . either alone or with a friend or confederate, who may have been either unusual, highly intelligent, or away from his own time and place (or all three) or had some unusual mechanical or electrical equipment. "My first guess is that it was Rembrandt Peale, the artist . . ." He goes on to give a solution that says the secret's hidden behind a bed at Monticello, adding that "all of the foregoing speculation is as true and complete as my 'subconscious' biological computer and my imagination can make it. . ." Most Beale correspondents use only initials o obvious reasons. Mrs. H.M.B.G. writes: "It took me 31/2 years to decode the Beale Ciphers. The Gold is not lost. It never has been lost. It is well marked. It is well preserved and well guarded. The gold is in the control of a group of rich people. It is not in Bedford County and never was. The Beale party stayed only overnight there. Thomas Beale is a code name for the man who brought the gold from the territory of Africa. It was a loan from the Bank of England. The money was to be used for the S.C. Security Council. It includes the Indians, Scotland, France, Dutch and England. . ." M.C.D.'s solution:

ONE RAN TO COVER THE TOP / HIT THE RAM NUB ON THE TOP OF THE NEST / BEST I TRY HEAT / SEE CALL TO FIT TOY SO HAT NOD IF FULL / I WILL BE IN THE CUT FIND AND DIG IT . . . GO WIN YOUR SLICE AND BE LONG IN LOVE.

Part of J.G.H.'s:

NEAR BY THE OAK THERE I HAE BLANKETED EMBANKED INHUMED DACY MEET AT MANTLET.

From a resident of Tampa comes the assertion that "Beale was an American agent in Europe; the ciphers tell of many intrigues of the American Revolution, and the jewels are the lost crown jewels of France." P.L.S., who said he had a solution come to him "by means other than decipherment," went to a place near Montvale with a metal detector and found a mattock bearing traces of gold, silver and copper under a thick crust of rust. But it started to rain so he went home. Later he strted to go back there, but his car broke down. And so it goes. The Beale Cypher Association's mail and membership ebb and flow with the surges of publicity about the case, which recently has been featured on television's PM Magazine, the Ted Koppel show, and several others. Hammer, who recently retired from Sperry-Univac, has never wavered in his conviction that there's a real message in the cipher, but he's beginning to waver on whether it will ever be possible to winkle it out. His computer expertise keeps him traveling nearly constantly on the symposium circuit, but between planes he's noodling out a Final Program designed to determine whether there are enough cracks in the surface of the code that it is even theoretically possible to power one's way in by computer. If there are, the amount of "hunting and pecking" involved will be so astronomical that it may have to wait for a sixth-computer to perform the operations. If he should find out that there's no way in, a lot of us hope he'll keep it to himself.

CODE-CRACKER CENTRAL

The Beale Cypher Association is the central clearinghouse for Beale researchers and has copies of many otherwise virtually unobtainable documents. The newsletter, and some services, are available only to members (annual dues, $25). The address is Post Office Box 236, Warrington, Pennsylvania 18976.