It was late September in 1848 when Lucky Lars arrived in the muddy, dusty, god-forsaken goldrush boomtown of Auburn, California. Men from every corner of the world were pushing and shoving their way into the Sierra foothills hoping of grab a piece of the Mother Lode pie—determined to either make their fortune or die trying.
Lars quickly discovered that shovels, pans, tents, or food—all the things a man might need—were priced more than he could afford.
Winter's comin' and I ain't got nothn', he thought as he sat dejected on the steps of the newly-built Mercantile. If I can't work fer myself, then I'm gonna have to sign up and start diggin' fer sombody else.
Despite his name, Lars had never really been lucky at much of anything. Back home in Indiana he had tried his hand at farming but, just before harvest, his crops caught fire and burned up. Then, after he moved to Missouri, he tried raising cattle but his first, small herd was stolen by two cattle rustlers. The men were later caught and hung but not until they had slaughtered the herd and sold off the meat. Lars was completely broke when he heard that gold had been discovered in California.
Now he was in Auburn, where pair of muddy boots covered in horse manure appeared on the step to his left—boots worn by a man who sat down next to him, reeking of sweat, unwashed clothes, and breath sour enough to cause a grizzly to back up, turn around, and head back into the hills.
Not that Lars smelled any better, but a man gets used to his own smell once he's lived with it for weeks at a time.
"Call me, Billy," the man said without turning his head or extending a hand.
Now Billy, it turned out, was just the opposite of Lars. Everything he ever did had turned out well. But after his wife died of scarlet fever he had given up and quit doing much of anything. The news of the gold rush offered him a reason to keep on living so, like Lars, he found himself in Auburn.
Neither Lars nor Billy could afford to buy everything they needed, so, they got together and decided if they put their money together, they could afford to buy it all. So, they bought some shovels, a pick axe, some gold pans, a sluice box, some buckets and two small cases of dynamite in case they needed to blast through some rock. Billy already had a canvas tent, some blankets for sleeping and some pots and pans for cooking their food."
For ten days they searched for a place to dig for gold but other miners had already staked claims everywhere they went. Finally, when they were just about ready to give up and quit, they found an unclaimed section along Gold Creek, just off the Bear River, eight miles east of Grass Valley.
They dug down in the rocky ground and, at first, sifted water through the dirt and gravel in their pans. They found some gold dust and a few small nuggets but not enough to make a living. So, they set up their sluice box and started digging deeper.
Billy did most of the digging and Lars ran the sluice box, making sure that there was enough water running through it to separate out any gold or gold ore from the rest of the dirt and gravel. Soon the creek was surrounded by large piles of all the dirt and gravel that had been sifted out.
After several months they temporarily closed up camp and went down to Grass Valley to sell their gold and buy some more food. Before they left, Lars took the two cases of dynamite, wrapped them in a waterproof oilskin cloth and buried them next to a granite boulder.
Although Lars later denied it, some folks said the two of them brought a small fortune in gold back to Grass Valley that day.
The way Lars told it, after three days in Grass Valley Billy left town and headed back to camp by himself. When Lars got there two days later, he couldn't find Billy anywhere. When he went to dig up the dynamite, he found nothing there except for a large hole the ground. After looking around he found Billy's pick axe stuck half-way up the trunk of a nearby Sugar Pine. Billy's gold pan was lying behind the boulder, all bent-up, and part-way down the hill he found what looked like a piece of the fancy belt buckle Billy was wearing the day he left Grass Valley to go back to the camp.
Lars began telling the other miners that Billy must have started digging a new hole with his pick axe and accidentally stuck it into one of the cases of dynamite and that must have been the end of Billy. But other people said they hadn't heard the dynamite explode until after Lars had come back to the camp and still other people wondered if maybe they had found so much gold Lars figured this was his chance to be really lucky for once and had blown up Billy so he could keep it all for himself.
One night a group of vigilantes came into the camp, grabbed Lars and took him down to Auburn to be put on trial for murder. Lars, of course, denied all of it and said they hadn't really found very much gold at all.
As one of the witnesses put it in Lars' defense, "There ain't been any of Billy's body parts found anywhere so who's sayin' that he's really dead for sure or not?"
The jury, which was made up mostly of other miners, had seen too much of arguing and feuding between partners before and they knew that, in a moment of drunken confusion, it was all too easy for one man to strike down and kill a man who had, until that very moment, been his best friend.
When the verdict came in it was unanimous: "Guilty as charged."
The next day Lars was strung up on the well-used tree in the town square and hung by the neck until dead, just like the men who had stolen Billy's cattle back in Missouri.
That would be the end of the story except for a couple of things. The first thing is that with both mining partners dead their claim was free to be picked up by someone else. It was, in fact, picked up by the man who had been the foreman of the jury that had convicted Lars.
The man found a lot of gold on the claim. He eventually became very wealthy and built a small mansion in San Francisco, on California Street just down from the top of Nob Hill.
The second thing was a rumor; a rumor confirmed by a number of men who claimed to have been in the Red Eye Saloon in Grass Valley several days after Lars had been hung and buried in Auburn. According to these men someone who looked exactly like Billy walked into the saloon and ordered a shot of whiskey. After downing the whiskey, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a nugget of gold the size of a walnut and set it down on the bar.
"That oughta be more than enough to pay for the whiskey," he said. "And," he added, "you can keep the change."
He then walked out of the bar and the men rushed out to see where he was going but when they stepped outside, he was nowhere to be seen. Another miner, who had been sitting outside the saloon door keeping an eye on his mule, swore no one had gone into the bar or come out of it the whole time he had been sitting there. But the gold nugget was real and worth a small fortune.