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, 56, a denturist. "A lot of southerners know the story, but they've not told anyone."
Enough buried booty has been recovered over the last 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 is an oft-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, 66, a used car dealer who learned of the secretive pro-South group through his fascination with legendary outlaw Jesse James. Hardcastle now thinks that 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 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.
These men have devoted more than 30 years -- and more than $100,000 each -- to chasing the secrets of the South.
In his pursuit of James, Hardcastle spent about $9,000 on legal fees that led to the exhumation in Granbury, Tex., of what he thought was James's body. It was not, 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.
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.
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 have clomped through overgrown fields together, dodging rattlesnakes and mountain lions. They have climbed hills and small mountains to study signs of Knight activity.
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-wrote 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.
"People will kill you for a six-pack of beer," he said.