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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.

Soon after, it disappeared. And Rankin, who traveled frequently between Two Rock and Tomales, where he also ministered a congregation, came upon it in a ditch.

In Virginia City, its image, captured by the hiker's camera, was adopted as the logo of the Comstock Cemetery Foundation, which commissioned a replica to place on the gravesite.

Every Christmas Eve, foundation volunteers placed a wreath on the grave. People came and piled toys at the gravesite.

"They would eventually come up to our knees and we would have to remove them," said Candace Wheeler, the foundation's executive director.

Last September in the Two Rock cemetery, Todt met with Brad Davall, vice president of the Forestville Historical Society and an expert in researching and restoring grave markers.

Davall enlisted other local researchers with the Sonoma County, West Sonoma County and Contra Costa historical societies and went to work.

There was a false lead in Martinez. There were more computer-assisted searches. Then, in late January, there was a hit. The data and the photos matched the stone.

Davall called Wheeler.

"When we got the call," Wheeler said, "we pretty much freaked out."

Said Davall: "There was much joy."

Wheeler and three foundation colleagues plan to travel on Wednesday to meet Davall, Todt and Hansen at the Two Rock Cemetery to recover the Jones boys' gravestone.

"It's really been part of the Comstock history now for 150-plus years and we never thought we would get it back," Wheeler said.

The late reverend "would be very proud, very pleased," Hansen said.

Still covered in time is the question of how the gravestone made its way from Nevada to Petaluma.

"Usually, they don't move too far," said Davall, who has returned four other stray gravestones to their original plots — the farthest being one from Santa Rosa that ended up in Sebastopol.

Todt has a theory.

"Some guys probably went up there, went to the cemetery, they saw this stone, they put it in the back of a pickup," he said.

"Then they said if we take this home, the old man's not going to be too happy with us, and they dumped it out.

"That's my guess. If anyone's got a better one, I'd be happy to listen to it."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.