The tombstone from 1871 was broken in half. Moss crept onto it. Weather wore at its inscription. Its origin was unknown.
The late Rev. Henry Rankin, who in the 1970s found the stone along a rural Sonoma County road, propped it against a wall of the Two Rock Valley Presybterian Church and tried without luck to find the identities of the two boys named on it.
"Henry T. & John J. Jones," the stone read, "who departed this life Dec. 24th, 1871." They were aged 14 and 9 when, as it read, "death wrapped them in a snowy shroud."
In search of corresponding vital statistics, Rankin wrote to county clerks, including those in places where snow fell, but turned up nothing.
"He did a lot of research," said Rankin's daughter, Linda Hansen, of Petaluma. "He was concerned because he found this beautiful monument damaged and removed from its rightful setting."
By the 1990s, the marble tablet was leaning against a eucalyptus stump and "it just became a part of our cemetery," said Mel Todt, chairman of the Two Rock church's graveyard, where 389 people are buried.
Today, 141 years after the gravestone was made and decades after it was presumably stolen, its history has been unfolded, linking Nevada's gold and silver country with Sonoma County's dairylands.
In the legendary Comstock, site of one of history's great precious metal rushes, on Christmas Eve 1871, an English miner named Robert Jones sent Henry and John out on horseback to find a calf lost in the cold and snow.
Jones was a "tough old case," in the words of a newspaperman and diarist of that era, and his sons, scared to return empty-handed, searched fatefully on. Three days later, they were found on the Ophir Grade "frozen to the ground and their horses standing by them."
Their gravestone was erected in the Gold Hill Cemeteries, outside Virginia City. In 1974, hikers photographed it; an event that later proved important.