It was a cool Tuesday morning in Coloma, California, in the spring of 1850. A perfect day for mining. The smell of mud and fire filled the cloudy sky. Johnny Smith, a boy who had recently turned eleven, was wandering the mining sites, kicking pebbles and snapping his fingers. The clang of pick axes cracking stone and tired, cranky men in combat with each other were the only sounds to be heard.
Johnny had recently moved to Coloma from Massachusetts with his poor parents and two siblings. They heard about the gold that had been found just a year before in 1849, and left their home in search of a better life. While his mother was at home with his young brother and sister, he was out in the mines with his father.
“Son, help me move these rocks,” his father wiped his black smudged forehead and huffed as Johnny dragged himself over to his father’s mine.
“Fine,” Johnny replied in dismay. He picked up the smallest rock and threw it into a nearby miner’s pit.
“Hey! Keep your rocks to yourself! It’s bad enough you’re here stealin’ my wealth!” a strange voice murmured.
An older man wearing a ripped hat and overalls popped up from behind the dirt mound separating them. His face was scary in Johnny’s eyes. He had light blue eyes and wrinkles covering his face. His hair was long, wispy and grey. The man spit a toothpick from his mouth and glared at them.
“Ya hear me!” he frustratingly yelled and went back to his business.
“Don’t worry about him. He’s probably been here for a year, failing because he ain’t finding anything,” Johnny’s father assured.
After about forty minutes of moving rocks and the sun that was becoming increasingly brighter later in the day as the clouds moved out, Johnny was done for good. His father was taking a break and resting his eyes. It was the perfect time to sneak away. Johnny quietly tiptoed through the miners. He saw nothing interesting at first, but then, just then, Johnny did something amazing. A group of men near the river had found some gold and it was sitting unattended in a barrel overflowing from the top. The three men who found it could be seen nearby carrying a second barrel over for more gold. This would be a one-way trip back to Massachusetts with a better life.
Johnny sneaked up to the barrel and opened the lid slowly. It let out a loud creak, blowing his cover. He grabbed as much gold as he could, stuffing some of it into his pockets and some into his hat. As he ran, he heard some yelling back from where he stole the gold. He sprinted to what he thought was safe ground. Out of breath, he stopped next to a tree and took a second to look back. Men were coming like a herd of bulls, waving pick axes and shovels in the air.
“There he is!” a man yelled, pointing at Johnny.
Johnny let out a small shriek and turned around, tripping over wood planks. The men were getting closer and Johnny was getting slower. He was hopeless! As he ran, he thought to himself, Should I go back to return the gold? Then I can stop running. But, I want the gold! I’ll keep running. So, he ran until he reached his town nearby. His town was located near Shutter’s Mill, a well-known saw mill. His plan was to hide in his home with the gold and surprise his father when he arrived home in search of him.
But his plan was demolished only seconds away from reaching his home. He looked back to see if the men were following him and they weren’t. That was the good news, but before he could slow his pace, he ran straight into the sheriff.
“Sorry, Mister,” Johnny nervously said.
“What are you in such a rush for?” the sheriff suspiciously asked.
“Oh, nothin’,” he replied.
“Are you sure about that?” the sheriff asked, grabbing an obvious chunk of gold from Johnny’s pocket.
Johnny told the sheriff that he had found the gold but the sheriff wasn’t convinced. He grabbed Johnny by the arm and escorted him to the nearest jail.
“But…my father, he doesn’t know where I am,” He said anxiously.
“I’ll make sure your father knows what you’ve been up to,” the sheriff replied.
Oh great, Johnny thought. When they reached the jail, the cell guard emptied all of Johnny’s pockets and pushed him into the cell. It had been ten minutes but it felt like three hours of being held in that cramped cell. Johnny felt like he was going to get heat stroke so he took off his hat. Along with his hat came pieces of gold, pattering all over the floor. He looked around cautiously, picking up the pieces of gold he forgot about. He was happy he had gold, but then he realized the gold could help him in more than one way. He took the sharpest piece and stuck it into the lock. He fiddled with it until the door cracked open.
He first thought of quietly sneaking away. But how? So, then he decided to just make a break for it. He slammed the door open and ran. The guard and sheriff followed. Once again, he was being chased. He swerved left and right, cutting through trees and across the river. Next to the river was a giant hole in the ground. That would be the ultimate place to hide.
As Johnny jumped into the hole, he realized something that would change everything. In the walls were hundreds of pieces of gold poking out at him. The sheriff soon found him after Johnny let out a huge “Wow!” in excitement.
The sheriff looked down into the hole and smiled at Johnny. “Maybe your dad won’t have to find out about your theft today.”