CEMENT — THE KEECHI HILLS spring out of the scrub like warts on a pretty girl's face: unexpected but oddly compelling. The land near Cement isn't flat; rounded rocky shoulders and sweeping pot bellies bulge out of the earth, forming gradual slopes, but the Keechi knolls are something more. Dramatic and steep, they look out of place, random, as if God stored them here while designing a western desert and forgot to pick them back up. Jumbled rock slabs and boulders perch on top, natural monuments to the dead outlaws and gangsters who frequented the area in days long past.
Local legend says there were many such men, killers and thieves who came looking for a place to hole up and hide out. First among them, at least in terms of notoriety, is Jesse James. Even today, the outlaw's name lingers on the lips of those who walk here, and most often, it is accompanied by another word, a better word, one that stirs dreams and greed and makes men smile. That word is treasure, and it's why we're here right now.
"We" is James Dodson, Mark Pack and T.J. Johnson, plus me and photographer Chris Landsberger. After meeting up at Cement's drug store, we talked for awhile at the Jesse James Visitor Center in town before driving out to the hills on rutted roads and dirt tracks. If anyone knows where the James gang's treasure trail begins, it's these guys, who have spent decades deciphering rock carvings and hunting down landmarks, trying to reconstruct the past. That alone doesn't make them unique.
"This whole town knows about treasure," says Dodson, 38. "Everyone looks for it."
What does separate these men from the rest is this: They have treasure maps. Real ones. And not just any maps, but the ones that helped Joe Hunter, Oklahoma's most dogged treasure seeker, unearth some of Jesse's lost loot.
When it comes to treasure, history is unreliable. Nobody hides ill-gotten gold where it can be found easily, and few who recover such riches — intentionally or fortuitously — broadcast their success. They want to keep it, so why involve insurance companies and property owners and government officials? Better to keep quiet.
So it is that no one knows how much treasure is secreted away in caves or buried pots, and no one knows what's myth and what's real.
Even so, there's good reason to believe that southwest Oklahoma still holds reservoirs of outlaw loot. Hunter found the best evidence for that here, in the Keechi Hills, sometime in the 1930s.
As Steve Wilson tells it in his book, "Oklahoma Treasures and Treasure Tales," the James gang ambushed a Mexican pack-train in 1875 and stole $2 million in gold bars. They drove 18 heavily laden burros into the Wichita Mountains, where they were stalled by a blizzard. Knowing they could go no further, the gang hid the gold in a ravine. In March 1876, Jesse carved an outlaw contract into the side of a brass bucket, naming the conspirators and providing coded clues to the gold's location, and hid it on Tarbone Mountain. Other clues were stashed elsewhere.
Wilson contends the gang didn't recover the gold. They tried to rob a Minnesota bank several months after hiding the bucket, but things went south, and the gang was splintered. A manhunt netted most gang members, and Jesse and his brother, Frank James, barely escaped. Five years later, Jesse was killed. Frank didn't return to the Wichitas until 1907, when he built a house near Fletcher. Decades had passed since he'd helped hide the gold, and he couldn't seem to find it.
Jesse James carved the original version of this outlaw contract into the side of a brass bucket and left it hidden in the Wichita Mountains, where it was found decades later by a treasure hunter. This copy resides in the Jesse James Visitor Center in Cement.
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
"Old-timers say that Frank James wore out six horses riding the trails, searching for landmarks to put him back on the road to the golden treasure," Wilson wrote. "But the country had now been fenced and plowed. ... Towns had grown up overnight, and new roads were now traveled. The old trails were not called by the names the outlaws had known them."
Frank recovered some loot. How much isn't known, but Wilson wrote that Frank may have unearthed as many as 14 caches before leaving Oklahoma in 1914. What's clear is that he didn't find everything.
Enter Hunter. In 1932, Hunter, a peace officer, was approached by an old man near Rush Springs. The man spoke of treasure and gave Hunter three maps before drifting off, never to be seen again. "Hunter had no idea then," Wilson wrote, "that the treasure maps would haunt him for the remainder of his days, causing him to abandon job and family alike."
The maps led Hunter across the southwest looking for outlaw gold, but his most notable finds were in the Keechi Hills and the Wichitas. At Buzzard's Roost, a knoll east of Cement, he dug up an iron pot. Inside were gold, jewels, a large pocket watch and a map carved into a copper sheet. Years later, he found the brass bucket Jesse had hidden at Tarbone Mountain. Nearby was a Dutch oven containing the chain and fob that matched the watch from Buzzard's Roost.
The gold? Hunter never found it.
Halfway to the top of Buzzard's Roost, my head explodes and my vision goes screwy. I hear someone uttering a steady stream of curse words, and somewhere along the line I realize, through a fog of pain, that it is me.
Not long ago, I was standing at the base of the roost, staring upward with mild apprehension. The roost isn't particularly tall, probably no more than 50 or 60 feet, but it's steep. Can't be too bad, I told myself. Johnson is 74 years old. If he can climb it, so can I.
So I started up the trail, following in Jesse James' footsteps. Dodson and Landsberger were well ahead of me. Johnson and Pack, 53, lagged a good distance behind. At a certain point, the hard-packed earth and weeds transformed into bare limestone. In places, the rock formed natural stairways, and in others, I had to hop or climb over obstacles and breaks. I'd nearly reached the top when my head erupted.
At exactly the point where a sunny section of trail turned to shadow, a small fissure had opened up, bringing an attendant change in elevation. When I lunged from light to dark, I smashed my head into a stone overhang to my right. My sunglasses absorbed the brunt of the blow, leaving them hanging off one ear. My right temple took a wallop, too.
Treasure hunter James Dodson examines an old photograph showing outlaw markings. The photo was taken from the same vantage point atop Buzzard's Roost.
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
Now, standing here checking for blood, it strikes me that treasure hunting is not without risk. Until this moment, it seemed a mental exercise, a dreamer's game, a fantasy fueled by legend and fed by pop culture. Pack complained an hour or so ago that people lump treasure hunters into the same category as Bigfoot enthusiasts and alien abductees, and he's right. So much of it is shrouded in secrecy and faith, and ideologies differ. The "truth" about Jesse James is a perfect example. In films and novels, the Missouri outlaw has morphed from a selfish sociopath who killed for his own benefit into a dashing Robin Hood figure whose thieving ventures somehow benefited the poor. A recent documentary on the History Channel cast him as a political animal, robbing to fund the Confederacy as a member of a secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, which hoped to annex Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.
"It's a theory," Dodson told me earlier. "Not a good one, in my opinion, but some people seem to have fun with it."
I catch up with Landsberger and Dodson, a broad-shouldered outdoorsman who hosts annual conferences on treasure hunting. He's sun-burnished and squinty-eyed, a pressure cooker of secrets. He doesn't trust me with them, but when the stress of staying silent proves too much, hints hiss out of him like steam. He doesn't agree with Wilson that the James gang never returned for the gold. "I'm fairly sure they came back and retrieved it and probably reburied it in smaller caches," he says. Why is he so sure? He won't say, not outright. Instead of edification, he offers speculation.
He is similarly unforthcoming about his success as a treasure hunter. The only things I know he has found are flintlock pistol parts and piled, carved or drilled stones. Johnson has collected a bag of coins over the years, and Pack, who chooses his words carefully, says: "A lot of the treasure to me is the friendships I've formed and just the hiking and being out in nature." If not for the maps, there'd be little to differentiate them from other history buffs.
But they do have the maps. And the watch.
If you've never seen a treasure map before — if you've never held one in your hands — you cannot imagine how compelling they are. Maps have always been a source of fascination; most men, at least those without GPS navigators, have an assortment of them scattered around their cars, and you can't browse the home décor section of any department store without seeing at least one framed map. They call to us: These are the places I've been. These are the places I want to go. I wonder what life is like somewhere else.
A treasure map, though, is like nothing produced by Rand McNally. The images are meant to convey information only to a select few, and there's no printed legend to explain the scale or the meaning of cryptic symbols. Faded and torn, they demand close scrutiny, and the longer you stare, the more you feel bound up in mystery. Knowledge hovers just beyond the edges of the map. You're so close, but you're not quite there.
Ray Pack, 77, knows that feeling better than most. In 1971, when he was a pharmacist in Ada, he read an article about Joe Hunter and the James gang's hidden gold. His mind flashed to one of his customers, Kenneth Hunter. As it turned out, Kenneth was Joe's son, and he still had the Buzzard's Roost watch and an assortment of his father's old maps. He agreed to sell to Pack.
"It wasn't a bad price," Pack said. "He only charged me $300 for 13 maps ... and the watch."
Treasure hunter James Dodson uses chalk to trace the outline of a pistol carved into a rock in the Keechi Hills near Cement.
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
For 38 years, Pack has studied the maps and Oklahoma's Indian Territory past. His Marlow home looks like a museum — one room dedicated to military artifacts, another to outlaw treasure. An enlarged copy of a map hangs on the wall, and the oversized pocket watch is displayed with a photograph of Jesse James in a small wood-and-glass case. The other maps are stored in a photo album. One, drawn on a ragged linen square, is as fragile as a cobweb.
This whole business, treasure hunting, seems nearly as delicate. How many clues have been lost to time? How many secrets followed their owners to the grave? Pack, who has emphysema, no longer goes out in the field. He has passed his information to his son, Mark Pack, and grandson. Dodson, who learned about treasure from his father and Wilson, is teaching his sons, ages 10 and 15, to search.
"I know more about Oklahoma history than you could probably ever learn in school," Dodson said. "That's why I've got my boys interested in the same thing. They can tell their teachers about things they've never heard of before."
By all indications, these guys — the Packs, Dodson, Johnson — haven't struck it big. They're Wrangler jeans and T-shirt guys with rough hands and work boots. If they're sitting on a pile of outlaw gold, they're good at keeping it low-key. But seeing them together, sitting around Ray Pack's coffee table discussing "The Chronicles of Oklahoma" and looking at surveyors' charts, it's clear they've found something — even if, as Mark Pack said earlier, it's simply each other. In their own way, they're like Jesse's watch in the other room, which stopped ticking more than a century ago but grows more valuable each day. In this Internet age, when information is mere seconds away, they cling to books and maps and conversation, patiently searching for answers they may never find. And maybe that's it — that's all they need — the search, nothing more. Maybe that's answer enough.
I'm hanging out with Dodson at the bottom of Buzzard's Roost. Landsberger has wandered off somewhere, and Johnson and Mark Pack are still near the top of the knoll, hoping he'll come back and snap a photo of them. They look as if they're waiting for a bus.
Earlier, I asked Pack and Dodson if they ever get discouraged.
"Just because you're in the right area and everything, that don't mean the money is still there," Pack told me. "It could have been dug up 20, 30 years after it was put down."
"Sometimes you come upon an empty hole," Dodson added. "That's kind of disappointing, but it's good to know you followed the signs right."
I'm reminded of that when Johnson and Pack finally descend. "What took you so long?" Dodson asks.
"We stopped for awhile at the top of the trail," Johnson says. "We thought that photographer was going to take our picture."
Right place, wrong time. Another empty hole.