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Tracking down lost treasure!

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You know how it is this time of year – cleaning up, sorting out and looking for the year’s gas receipts. All that effort usually turns up all sorts of neat things, and my problem is that I get sidetracked when I find something more interesting than a box of holiday hand towels.

So there I was, doing my best to bring order to chaos, when I found it: a long-forgotten magazine story I’d written years ago about lost Confederate gold.

Gold, eh? Lost treasure? Sure enough – and legend said it was not too far away either.

Had it ever been found? Not as far as I’d heard.

So what if I set out in search of it? Might it still be there?

Hmm. I could use a little gold. After all, tax time is coming.

It sounded like an adventure in the making, so I reread the story. It goes like this:

As the Civil War moved toward its end, the legends say, the Confederacy grew concerned lest its cache of gold fall into enemy hands. To secure the treasure, Confederate troops stashed parts of it in along the route that Jefferson Davis’ armies followed during their final retreat from advancing northern troops. That route passed through several states, and those who pursue such tales say that part of the gold could be hidden anywhere along the way.

In fact, some say that part of it might be stashed just down the road somewhere near the hallowed town of Athens.

Bulldog gold? I like that!

According to the legend, Davis and his troops stopped for the night at an inn on the Oconee River near Athens. But after dinner, Davis could not sleep. He fretted…he paced…he thought about that gold. He could not let it fall into Union hands. And so, says the story, he made up his mind to hide some of it that very night.

Darkness was thick as he awakened his most trusted men. Together, they lugged a chest to the river and buried it there in the mud. They tied an iron chain to a nearby tree to mark the spot. Then, satisfied, they returned to the inn –

(At this point, if this story had a soundtrack, a low and sinister chord would begin to sound…)

– but back at the river, there was rustling in the brush as a shadowy figure rose into view. It’s said he was a farmer, a dirt-poor farmer named Smith left in the wake of the war. He had seen those soldiers burying something, and for long moments he cautiously surveyed the scene. Then, with agonizing slowness, he crept from his hiding place, touched the cold iron of the chain, moved to the river, scraped away the freshly-turned dirt and at last, saw the chest.

He pried it open – and found himself face to face with stacks of shining, gleaming gold. Mesmerized, he ran his hand slowly over the treasure –

And then, with a snap, he came to his senses. Soldiers were nearby, and he knew he would have to act fast. He stumbled home and returned with a mule-drawn wagon. He loaded the gold onto his rig. Then, he silently rode away.

Meanwhile, back at the inn, Jefferson Davis was at last asleep, secure in the knowledge that the gold was safe.

And somewhere nearby, exhausted from burying a heavy chest near his cabin, the one called Smith slept too.

That’s the story. Is it true?

In the years following the war, it is said, the man named Smith prospered. Was he living on treasure? Maybe so. But as well-known treasure hunter Ernie Andrews once told me years ago, “I don’t reckon he could have spent it all.”

“Who knows?” Andres said. “Maybe Smith hid part of that gold in the walls of his house. Maybe he buried it somewhere in the yard. There’s no telling where it might be. But it sure wouldn’t take much to make it worthwhile finding out.”

Indeed it wouldn’t. And so the day before yesterday I decided (purely on the spur of the moment!) to go and look for the treasure myself.

Sometimes those spur-of-the-moment trips are the best trips of all, and this one was going to be short since I still had lots of chores to do.

But any adventure is better than no adventure at all.

Besides, maybe I’d get lucky.

So right after lunch I hopped in the car and made the drive to Athens. I found a place where the road crossed the Oconee River. I parked nearby and walked out on the bridge and looked at the river. Had a treasure been there once upon a time? If so, where was it now? And who was this Smith person anyway? Hard to say, since no one even knows his first name.

Locking the car, I scrambled down the right-of-way toward the river. Like I said, maybe I’d get lucky.

All I found was underbrush and mud.

Climbing back up to the car, I spotted a dull gleam in the dirt near the guardrail at the end of the bridge. I reached to pick it up. It was a 1992 quarter, tarnished and worn.

It wasn’t much as treasures go, but it would have to do.

I thought about that quarter on the drive back to Alpharetta. Finding it was a period at the end of a sentence, an oddly satisfying way to wrap up 2017 and set the stage for more adventures in the year to come.

As for the gold, who knows? Maybe it’s still there.

If you find it, let me know.


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