These are the facts we know: George died in 1883, a successful man. Three years later, my great-great-grandfather Joseph, who had followed his brother from Ohio to Kansas to Denver, abandoned his wife and children and lit out for California. It was where George had gone at the end, seeking treatment for a kidney infection no one in the 19th century could cure.
What someone did is one thing; why he did it, quite another. “It’s clear,” my father says, over buffalo burgers in an old hotel. “Joseph couldn’t make it on his own. George kept him toeing the line.” But I wonder.
These are the bones of a life. Bones stick around, if they’ve been treated right. Flesh is a different matter. Dig up the skull and we’ll see his zygomatic arch, but what he looked like, that we’ll never fully grasp. Still, we try, turning facts into police sketches, artists’ renderings of a man long since crumbled to dust.
Pick a story to reconstruct those first months after George’s death. Sorrow, rebellion, or habit: which one led Joseph west?
Without George, the days lost their shape. Flaccid mornings slurred into sour afternoons. Nights, when the saloons spilled their antic reels into the mud of the street, Joseph could see it best, what life really was. The way the ruts reared up and froze, like a wave that never broke, golden yellow on one side from the gas lights, black as a hole on the other.
Maybe he’d go to the ocean. Endless miles of water, which had no shape at all except that which it was given. Maybe there things would make a damn lick of sense.
Cinches and throatlatches, hobbles and yokes. Each and every item on the saddlery’s shelves another rock in Joseph’s pocket as George pushed him toward the river. Each of them a rock George himself swallowed, until they choked his kidneys and he pissed blood.
The west was supposed to be littered with money. Kansas farmland, Colorado silver, buffalo whose meat you could sell to the army. All supposedly free for the taking. Didn’t work out that way, though. Move after move, George got richer while Joseph just got tired.
George’s death was like that moment when the sun breaks the horizon and suddenly there’s color back in the world. Joseph could go anywhere, now. Leave the squalling kids and Alice’s eyes on him and the towns that only knew him as George’s no-account brother. Leave with no one to shame him into coming back.
Maybe he’d go to California, where they say the grasses turn the hills to gold. Follow his brother just one last time. But not to Los Angeles, and not to die. To live, for once, as his own man.
III. Hanging up the Fiddle
Seemed like he’d made a life of following George. It was always George had the notions of what to do and where to go, of what people wanted and how to give it to them nice. Joseph never could make out what anyone wanted, much less Alice, who wanted so very much indeed. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like leaving all that wanting behind.
The west kept pulling at his brother. It figured that he’d die where you couldn’t get any further without falling into the water. Joseph was of a mind to go out there himself, see what the end of it all looked like. Maybe wait around for a message from that final far country where, as usual, George had gone first.
 To absquatulate: take leave, to disappear.
 To hornswoggle: to cheat.
 To hang up the fiddle: to give up.