HATFIELD, ARK. — Deep in the woods near Brushy Creek stands an old beech tree, its smooth bark etched with dozens of carvings, including biblical references, a heart and a legless horse.
Bob Brewer was 10 when his great-uncle, W.D. "Grandpa" Ashcraft, pointed it out on a logging trip 57 years ago.
"He said, 'Boy, you see that tree? That's a treasure tree,' " Brewer recalled on a recent visit to the site. " 'You see that writing? If you can figure out what that is, you'll find some gold.' "
The old man didn't elaborate, but his words stuck with Brewer through childhood and two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Navy helicopter crewman. So did memories of Grandpa's frequent, unexplained horseback rides into the nearby Ouachita Mountains.
In 1977, after retiring from the Navy, Brewer returned to western Arkansas and took up an obsessive search -- for buried treasure, and for his family's links to a secretive, subversive Confederate group, the Knights of the Golden Circle, or KGC.
After many years of research, he is among those who believe that the group buried millions in ill-gotten gold across a dozen states, to finance a second Civil War that never came to be. And he thinks Ashcraft and his son, Odis, had something to do with it.
"I think Grandpa Ashcraft and Uncle Ode had a secret," Brewer says.
A similar theme will play out on the big screen Dec. 21, when Nicolas Cage returns as code-breaking treasure hunter Ben Gates in "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," a sequel to Disney's 2004 hit. Brewer is a consultant on the film.
But although Cage's character searches for Confederate gold and his ancestral ties to the Lincoln assassination, Brewer's journey shows, once again, that real life can be stranger than fiction -- or at least as intriguing.
Steeped in the history of the South and the West, his quest is haunted by the legend of Jesse James and imbued with the mysterious stuff of Freemasonry, coded treasure maps and conspiracy theories dating to John Wilkes Booth.
Along the way, Brewer says, he has unearthed about $200,000 worth of gold and silver coins. It's enough to support his modest lifestyle, and to thumb his nose at those who might think he's just another old coot with a metal detector.
"It's my damn story," he says, "and if they don't believe it I'm not gonna worry about it, damn it. Pardon my French."
Brewer's life is detailed in "Shadow of the Sentinel: One Man's Quest to Find the Hidden Treasure of the Confederacy," a book he wrote with Warren Getler, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
The authors say their 2003 book, reissued in paperback as "Rebel Gold," sheds new light on the hidden history of the KGC, even as it lays out Brewer's efforts to trace his familial connections to the group and crack the code behind its legendary "depositories."
Having found smaller coin caches, Brewer says he's now on to "a big, big one" in Oklahoma -- big enough to more than validate his 30-year search.
"It was supposed to have been $2 million when it was buried," he says. "We figure it's about 80 times that face value."
The hunt that brought Brewer to this point began in earnest after he retired from the Navy in 1977 and started spending time at a Hatfield coffee shop, where talk often turned to treasure-hunting. Some spoke of "Spanish treasure signs," similar to the markings his great-uncle had shown him.
Spaniard Hernando de Soto had explored the nearby mountains in 1541 and local legend held that he stashed gold there. Over time, Brewer came to doubt the Spanish angle, but linked what his forebears had told him to what he was hearing in town.
He sketched the symbols others described, tracked them down when he could and plotted them on topographical maps. During a stint as a state inspector of beekeepers, he explored remote areas of the forest and found more carvings on trees and rock faces.
Many were recurring symbols: snakes, turtles, crescent moons, crosses, numbers and letters with odd flourishes. Brewer figured they were cryptic indicators of distance and direction, clues to buried riches.
By mapping them, Brewer surmised that they ran along lines that might extend for miles as part of a larger "treasure grid." Tracing the lines with a metal detector, he says, he learned to systematically find buried clues, one leading to the next, everything from gun barrels to farming implements to milk can lids.
If that sounds far-fetched, it did also to some of the 400 or so residents of Hatfield, including Brewer's wife, Linda.
"A lot of her friends, and even my own family, were telling her, 'You better watch Bob because he's going off the deep end,' " Brewer says. "She was beginning to believe it, too."
But Brewer persisted, and concluded that clues could be found not only in carvings on trees but also in the trees' shape. Some appeared to have been contorted as saplings, or had oddly grafted limbs that caused them to grow into unusual shapes and directional pointers.