JAMES TAYLOR WAS 11 when he found his brother dead in the woods near their house. In 30 years, he hasn't gotten over it, not even enough to tell his children, though his oldest is the same age David was when he died: 14.

It was February 1970, a cold day for Pine Island, Fla. David had the flu. By afternoon, he was restless, wanting to go outside, and his mother, Lorraine, let him. When by evening he hadn't returned, Lorraine sent James and his uncle to find him. They didn't have to look far.

Back up in the brush of the vacant lot across the street, a place where the two brothers had played for years, David was kneeling, slumped over, with a thin white cord around his neck, his hands resting palms up on his knees. The cord was tied to the spindly branch of a shrub no more than four feet off the ground. The bright red of his corduroy Boy Scout jacket stood out through the tangled growth.

James's Uncle Frank pulled out his pocket knife and cut the cord and let David fall. Then he left him there on the dead leaves. Taking James with him, he crossed back over to the house. He put Lorraine in the car and drove off to find her husband. They left James in charge of his baby stepbrother and stepsister.

James has this picture of himself: He is sitting in the living room with one child on each knee, and his legs are shaking, jostling the babies up and down. He stays that way for what seems an eternity, while his brother lies dead in the woods.

"I had to keep quiet and not say anything," he remembers. "That was the hardest thing I've ever done."

Finally cars started pulling up, which made it all sink in for his mom. James remembers her by a big pine tree by the road, hitting it until her hands were bloody.

Again and again, James has taken down a box of David's things, grasping at the clues of what happened that day and since. "But I get so confused I just stop."

All he knows for sure is that at the center of the careening tale surrounding the death of this boy he adored is: a matchbook-size medallion, ancient and made of gold, etched with indecipherable symbols.

It is a rare 400-year-old Indian artifact his brother had found in a burial mound a few months before his death.

Until early this year, when a semi-famous Florida suspense novelist looking for book publicity said he had based his novel on David's discovery, James never knew where the medallion ended up. Now he does--in a tiny Ziploc bag in the writer's safe deposit box at the Pine Island branch of SunTrust.

The Tribe

Early this spring, novelist Randy Wayne White came up with an unusual publicity pitch in advance of the May publication of his book. It took the form of the following e-mail, sent to editors of his acquaintance at three large newspapers:

"In 1969, on Pine Island, Florida, 14-year old David Taylor was sifting for Indian artifacts when he found human bones," it began. "Among the bones were many Spanish glass beads and a small, oddly designed pendant made of gold. On the face of the pendant were etched cryptic designs. . . . Everyone who's held the medallion has puzzled over those symbols. . . .

"According to his mother, the boy was troubled by his discovery. 'He seemed to grow increasingly nervous as the weeks passed,' she said. 'I know that he was having nightmares, and he seemed to become obsessed with thoughts of Indians. It bothered him that he'd dug-up a grave.'

"The mother also had nightmares. In one, she and her son were standing in water that was neck-deep. The boy had the medallion in his hand. He dropped it. In the dream, the mother begged him not to go after it, but he laughed and disappeared beneath the water.

"Three days later, the boy was found dead, hanging from a very low tree branch. . . .

"Shortly after her son's death, the mother was contacted by a stranger who offered to hold a seance in which she might speak to her son from the grave. Nearly crazed with grief, the mother agreed. At the seance, by candlelight, the dead boy 'spoke' through a series of raps on the table. He told his mother to give the gold medallion to the man who'd organized the seance.

"The mother did what her beloved son instructed.

"I heard the story several years later and leveraged it away from the shyster. I have it still.

"All of this is true. My novel is based on this story. You need to see the medallion, hold it and feel the heat and weight and puzzle over the designs to appreciate its power.

"Get to Florida before July, and you can."

Cut to May: Randy Wayne White stands on his screened porch on the still rustic Florida retreat of Pine Island. On cue he wraps his burly arm around a blonde fan. The camera clicks. Posing comes easily for White, and it's a good thing: He is about to begin a book tour for the new novel, "Ten Thousand Islands." This woman is one of hundreds of devoted readers who'll want souvenir photos in the coming weeks.

White's 1920s house is built atop a Calusa Indian mound a short walk from where David found the medallion. It looks out over a shimmering bay, the shoreline rimming the shallows like rickrack where centuries ago stood huge shell terraces where hundreds of men and women wove nets, dried fish and tended children: the Calusa. Their ancestors inhabited Florida for 12,000 years; they vanished in the 18th century, dead of European disease, killed or enslaved by enemy tribes.

Ambitious engineers, the Calusa built some of the largest shell mounds in the world--one on a nearby island covered 30 acres. When Ponce de Leon happened upon them in the early 1500s, he was met with a mortal wound from a Calusa archer's arrow. The Spaniards who followed tried in vain to dislodge the Calusa belief in idols, human sacrifice and the supernatural power of their chiefs, and finally fled their ruthless mockery without having made a single known convert. One Spaniard recounts the Indians bending over and mooning the fleeing missionaries.

In the mid-1500s, they were led by a powerful chief named Calus, whom the missionaries called Carlos. When Carlos was deemed too intractable, he was executed by the Spanish. Somewhere on these islands is his grave. At least one archaeologist believed he was buried a few hundred yards behind White's house. The clue, David's gold medallion, is disappointingly inconclusive and always will be. Though the medallion is clearly a remarkable artifact, for it to have truly told its tale it would have to have been painstakingly excavated by professional archaeologists to preserve and analyze its context. Instead, it was plucked from the ground and carried off by a 14-year-old boy.

The Pitch

Since White, a former newspaper columnist, began writing novels 10 years ago, the story of David finding the Calusa gold tablet shortly before his death had been contorting into fiction in his mind, spinning off supernatural aspects: that the tablet was cursed, that the boy had an extrasensory gift for finding ancient treasures.

By 1996, the contortion was well underway, even though the piece he wrote for Outside magazine was nonfiction: "Cursed: The tale of a certain gold relic that should have stayed in the ground." In it White quotes an anonymous source he describes as the current owner of the medallion "who prefers not to be identified." White's "source" was actually White himself. He had this to say about the medallion:

"I've given the thing away three times, and each time it's ended up back in my hands. My Indian friends--who are superstitious--say that's because the medallion is meant to remain here. They say it should be reburied. . . . Maybe that's the right thing to do."

Maybe. But it wouldn't sell books nearly as well as the plan White eventually came up with, using the medallion to garner media interest, then donating it to the Florida Museum of Natural History, coincident with the release of his book.

The Discovery

James Taylor sits in his pretty home in a shady Austin neighborhood, the contents of a cardboard box scattered on the living room carpet. Arrowheads, ancient fishing sinkers fashioned out of shells, an exquisite carved stone bird. The artifacts of a more recent--but equally irretrievable--past are also stirring: the school pictures of two good-looking boys, an old report card, a birth certificate, a death certificate and David Taylor's 31-year-old blue canvas notebook decorated with peace symbols in ballpoint pen.

The house is eerily quiet; Taylor, a computer analyst for a utility company, has left work early to be here before his three children come home from school. The children know that their father's brother David died as a boy, but they don't know how. Taylor feels they aren't ready yet. Perhaps he isn't ready to tell them; he still suffers periodic depressions mourning his brother. "The stuff I went through then sort of reverberates all throughout who I am," Taylor says quietly. "I don't trust a lot of people. I don't get real close to people."

Taylor's family was hard-living and hard-drinking. The adults always seemed to have a beer in their hands. Lorraine never finished high school, but she was sweet and loving, and when she was young she was pretty. When his father died of liver disease, they were left with nothing.

Lorraine brought her boys, ages 2 and 5, to Florida's west coast to be near her parents. She met Harold, who cleared drainage ditches for a living, and had two more children by him.

The constants of poverty and alcohol abuse must have shaped Taylor's life, but his memories make Heaven out of purgatory. Camping in the woods, shooting alligators at night with a .22, gigging stingrays in the bay and frogs in the ditch beside their very modest house, a house he remembers absolutely as "a damn mansion."

They built forts on vacant lots like the one where David died, from towering blue-hued Australian pines and papery trunked melaleucas. Off the pier of Captain Con's restaurant, where their mother waitressed, they caught enough fish to sell to "the Yankees," as Taylor puts it.

David had a bad stutter, and was something of a loner, much happier whittling on something--like the five interlocking links of a wooden chain Taylor keeps--than playing ball all the time like James. His grades were decent. But in one area he knew more than just about anybody his age. Archaeology. He was obsessed with the Calusa and dug for artifacts every chance he had. The island was littered with them back then, pottery shards and shell tools everywhere you stepped, it seemed, since the roads were largely made of fill bulldozed from shell mounds. Taylor's mom would drive them out to a spot, then pick them up three hours later.

"We'd be carrying big old bags of bones and arrowheads."

In David's notebooks are sketches of pottery, maps and his mother's correspondence with archaeologists about things the boys has found.

That interest drew Ron Kell to David the day they happened to sit together on the island's only school bus. They both were fascinated by the big mystery: where Carlos was buried. The boys had theories that archaeologists say were way off base, but enthusiasm must have made up for flawed thinking. Sneaking around a local estate in the summer of 1969, they found a big sand mound split in two by a hand-cut ditch.

"I said, 'David, I think this is the big one,' " recalls Kell, who now owns a dental lab in Missouri.

With screen-bottomed wooden boxes they'd built and an old-style Coinmaster metal detector, they began searching and sifting. At the base of a huge fallen tree, the Coinmaster went off. Immediately they began finding beads of silver, gold and glass.

"We started going nuts," Kell says. But on return visits, it was slow going. "Wall-to-wall mosquitoes, 99 degrees and 100 percent humidity," Ron says. At summer's end, without any more significant discoveries, Ron, four years older than David, left for college.

One fall day, David persuaded his mother to make one more drive to the mound. James, then 10, came along. This time, when David dug around the fallen tree, he found human bones. From around the remains, James and David dug sand and hauled it home in a box. Spreading out newspapers on the front porch, they started sifting. From the damp crumbling sand fell an extraordinary trove: more beads and a gold disk the size of a quarter. Then, the brilliant gold medallion.

It was the size of a matchbox, only thinner, etched with the distinctive designs of Calusa artifacts they had seen so often in books. The design resembles an animal's eyes and muzzle and, above them, the "cross-and-sun circle" motif widespread among Indians of the Southeast. On the back side were two crescent moons.

David's heart was pounding, he later wrote to Ron. Silently, he turned the piece over in his hands. "He just wanted to know more about it," says Taylor.

The kids tried not to tell their superstitious mother that they'd disturbed a grave. But it slipped out anyway. "She got real upset," Taylor said. "She said, 'Don't ever go back there!' "

The 'Curse'

Lorraine, not David, was the one most concerned that there might be some magical power in the piece of metal. She would continue to believe the curse followed her until her death in 1989.

But David was worried, too. He was writing to Kell, even calling long distance looking for solace from a creeping uneasiness about bothering the bones of a dead Calusa chief.

Kell says they'd heard that Carlos had put a curse on the Spaniard who executed him "just before the ax fell."

Kell tried to stick to the science of things, but his letters hardly would have calmed David. The neatly penciled writing on notebook paper and the breathless sense of importance belied his tone of authority: "You, David, are the first white man to see these artifacts. They are priceless . . . . Let's hope there is no curse that goes with them. (A little humor there)."

A respected, even legendary archaeologist, B. Calvin Jones, with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, made a trip to Pine Island and toured the mound with David. Jones "verified the find through my own evaluation of its contextual setting," he would later write. Jones, who died two years ago, believed the discovery to be the burial site of "Chief Carlos and his subordinates."

Jones likely based his theory on the writings of a Spanish missionary who described a gold ornament worn by the heir to the chiefdom. That child, Felipe, eventually was bumped from the royal lineage when Carlos was born, so the gold piece might have ended up with him.

Jones's theory is just that--a theory. "There is no evidence to back it up," says George Luer, the premier Calusa medallion expert. "Calvin loved to speculate and he didn't hold back."

When Carlos was executed, Felipe, who had betrayed him to the Spaniards, became chief. The royal ornament could have gone to him. The Spaniards, a tad short on loyalty, executed Felipe the following year, so the grave could be Felipe's--or anyone upon whom a chief might have wanted to bestow royal favor.

There is no question that the medallion is rare. Archaeologists say there is virtually no gold in Calusa mounds. Of the 58 documented metal medallions, only this one is gold.

But David felt the medallion's importance in a more visceral way. He began showing signs of paranoia. He told Kell that when he went to the mound he broke into a sweat. Birds were diving at him, the wind stopped blowing. He felt someone was watching him.

His mother wasn't exactly dispelling his fears. After her dream about David drowning while chasing the medallion, she made him promise not to go near the water.

Then one night they watched an episode of the cop show "Hawaii Five-O" in which a man communicated with spirits by partially choking himself with a rope around his neck. Days later David strangled himself.

Lorraine eventually agreed to talk to a local reporter, whose story played up the angle of a possible curse. James Taylor has never believed any of it. He believes the TV show provoked his brother's rash act, that David was trying to somehow communicate with the spirit of Carlos. David may have been a little anxious, but was not depressed, Taylor says. Ron Kell agrees: "I have letters shortly before his death full of the excitement of becoming an archaeologist. He was definitely fired up for life."

The coroner ruled the death accidental.

The Transactions

Kell and Taylor worry about another thing; that people view them as grave robbers. "I'd like people to think of David as doing the right thing," says Taylor.

There are laws now against disturbing the graves of indigenous peoples. But in 1969, as Kell says, they were kids on a mission to save the artifacts, not steal them: "We thought we better get this stuff out of the mounds before the bulldozers come."

And they did come. Archaeologists say up to half the shell from the mounds around Randy White's house were long ago hauled off as fill.

While developers were razing entire mounds, "pot hunters"--amateurs looking for artifacts--were doing more precise damage. Of the hundreds of burial mounds in the area, not one is fully intact, archaeologists say.

Treasure hunters needed metal detectors, and Lee Hurtado was the man to see. Head honcho of the local pot hunters, he was part owner of a treasure museum and boasted an impressive artifact collection.

Hurtado was the "stranger" who Randy White says swindled the medallion from Taylor's mother at the seance. White says he originally heard the medallion story five years after the fact. He says he tracked down Lorraine, by then living in Texas, and she told him the details of the seance--that two raps on the table meant David said to sell the medallion to Hurtado.

"I was outraged that anyone would do such a thing to such a vulnerable woman," White says.

Under the guise of reporting a feature story for his newspaper column, he went to Hurtado's house. Then, according to White, he baited Hurtado by saying that he'd heard there were no genuine Calusa artifacts made from gold. When Hurtado bit, and trotted out the medallion, White pounced. He told him he knew about the seance con, and threatened: "Unless you sell it to me, I'm going to write about what you did to this poor lady."

James Taylor, Ron Kell and Hurtado's widow, Nona all dispute White's version of things. They agree that Lorraine willingly sold Hurtado the medallion, desperate for money to escape her bad marriage. Hurtado bought it for $300, Nona says: "They wanted to sell it in the worst way."

Nona believes Lorraine may have made the seance story up because she was angry when she discovered that Lee had briefly put the medallion in a Michigan museum exhibit without any mention of David.

So why did the Hurtados sell the piece to Randy White for the same $300 they paid for it?

Nona says White convinced her husband that legally, it still belonged to the owner of the land where it was found. White was loud and intimidating, she says. "Lee said, 'I'm not going to fight over it. Give me my 300 bucks and you can have it.' "

White gave him the money and walked away with the gold medal.

The Stories

To James Taylor it seemed like only weeks had passed since David's death when his mother "yanked me out of school," and they "just up and left." In fact, it was several months after the death when Lorraine and the children left Pine Island. Eventually they wound up in the Rio Grande valley. "Mom saw palm trees and it reminded her of Florida, so that's where we stayed."

That was where Randy White caught up with Lorraine and offered her the medallion back. His eagerness to right an alleged wrong apparently had its limits: He wanted Lorraine to reimburse his $300 investment. According to White, Lorraine wasn't interested in making the deal, or the medallion. "She wanted to distance herself from the whole event," he says.

"I don't believe his story," says Kell, who remained close to Lorraine until her death. "Lorraine was heartbroken that she'd let the [medallion] get out of her hands." Her regrets prompted Kell to carve her a foot-tall replica out of a plank of walnut, engraved: "To Momma #2. Made by Ron Kell. Found by my best friend David."

"If the image had such terrible significance, she wouldn't have kept that tablet I made until she died," Ron says.

How much is the gold medallion really worth?

White says he turned down an offer of $25,000 for it. Last year, he had it appraised through photographs, and it was valued at $15,000.

Whatever its true worth, James Taylor would have thought the figure impressive. He was putting himself through college, working nights so that he could send his scholarship money home to his mom and his stepbrother and stepsister.

Graven Images

Two weeks after Lorraine refused his offer, White says, he decided to give the medallion to Donald Randell, the owner of the property where David dug it up, free of charge.

White offers two reasons for the generous gesture: He felt he could trust Randell to honor Lorraine's wishes and eventually donate the medallion to a museum with David's name on it, and he believed the medallion should stay "close to the mound it came from."

White met Randell, an eccentric former stockbroker with a past, when he wrote an article about Randell's house and the mounds behind it. The two became friends.

For a decade Randell allowed state archaeologists access to his property, as well as thousands of volunteers who helped in the digs. White held writers' workshops and donated the $3,000 of students' fees to help fund the digs. In 1994, a year before he died, Randell donated 56 acres of his mound-studded property to the state. It is now part of the Randell Research Center, open to the public for tours.

About that time, White says, Randell put the medallion back in his hands. A few days later, a state archaeologist wrote to White asking him to donate the medallion to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. It took him four years to agree, and then with a stipulation that the donation not take place until his novel came out.

White explains the delay this way: "I wanted to wait until my sons [then 9 and 12] were old enough to understand the significance of giving."

Even though the book came out in May, White has held on to the medallion. The latest plan is to hand it over by summer's end. Lorraine Taylor's nearly 30-year-old wish to have it displayed in a museum with her son's name may finally come true. If White doesn't change his mind.

"I control it now," he says. "I think I did a good thing. I got it back. Nobody else did."

"It just seems kind of strange that a newspaper guy would have such an influential role in all this," James says.

Randy White hasn't been a newspaper guy for some time; he quit his column in the late '70s, and began his "Doc" Ford suspense series a decade later. Since then, each book has done better than the last. "Ten Thousand Islands" rose to No. 5 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, aided in part by the "based on a true story" marketing hook. White turns the character of David into a girl with supernatural powers who in a past life may have been the lover of the hero. She experiments with unconsciousness, then is murdered by a mad rapist--who is running for senator--with a habit of gouging out people's eyes and eating them. It would be a stretch to call it a homage to David.

The Damage

A quarter-century after it was dug out of the ground, a pristine artifact from another world, it would also be a stretch to call the 400-year-old medallion an archaeological treasure. Apparently, at some point in its brief history in the modern world, it has been desecrated.

The damage was analyzed by Jonathan Leader, an expert in aboriginal metalworking of the Southeast:

On the back, over two crescent moons, it looks as if someone took a metal scrub brush to the tablet and bore down hard. In large areas of the medallion's face, either a buffing wheel or polishing compound obliterated most of the original design, and apparently new lines were scratched in an attempt to retrace it. Leader tested various tools available to the ancient Indians and concluded that none of them could have accounted for the new lines. So he tried another tool: "A small pocket knife was used to mark a copper sheet, and the results gave the best match."

Based on "wear marks," he concluded that, after the polishing, someone must have worn it around in the "not too distant past."

The damage is so extreme that some people have thought White's medallion was a fake. Leader believes it is authentic, but only "loosely speaking."

Who damaged it is something of a mystery. Despite White's invitation to the media to "hold it and feel the heat and weight" of the gold, he insists he touched the medallion only twice, with great care. Nona Hurtado vehemently insists the medallion was pristine when her late husband gave it up in 1975. She says she first saw the damage when Randell put the medallion on display in 1979. "You wouldn't even recognize it," she hisses. "I was sick when I saw it. The engraving on it was just so beautiful, and they had polished it so bad you could hardly see the engraving."

"In my opinion it's not worth any more than the metal," says George Luer, the medallion expert. "It's not beautiful. It's a crude and poor example. This one doesn't matter."

Nevertheless, it will find its place in the Calusa exhibit. The reason, says museum curator William Marquardt, is that it retains one important non-archaeological value: "People are interested in it."

The Full Circle

In 1970 Ron Kell started out from Missouri at midnight in a '62 Ford Falcon and drove 20 hours straight to Pine Island. He asked Lorraine to take him to the spot where David died a few months earlier. Kell sat down with his back against the tree and watched what was left of the cut cord swaying in the breeze. That night, he slept in David's bed. "I guess I wanted to feel close," he says.

Five years later, he drove down again, straight to the mound this time. At the spot where the medallion was found, he dug out parts of a human skull. Carlos?

"I kept him under my bed for a long time," Kell says. Now the bones are in his attic.

One day soon, James Taylor wants to bring his kids to Pine Island. They'll see his old house--and the spot where David died, although there's a house there now. He'll take them to the mound. And he will try to find David's grave, which might prove difficult since his mother wouldn't let him attend the funeral, and the burial place is unmarked--no money for a stone. Then the family will drive to Gainesville to the Florida Museum of Natural History.

There, in a high-tech case, where temperature and humidity are controlled by computer, they will see David's medallion. Behind it, in a thatched hut lit by computer-rigged lightning bursts, they will see a statue of Carlos in all his terrible majesty.

Painted black and red, he sits above the figure of a lower-ranked chief in the traditional Calusa greeting: Carlos's hands hover, palms down, over the kneeling visitor's hands, which are offered to Carlos palms up.

Uncannily, the second mannequin evokes David's position when James found him: the lesser chief is kneeling, with his palms facing up, seeking Carlos's blessing.