Rumor had it that, in his younger days, Coleson Masters was a moonshiner, a racketeer, a man in cahoots with mobsters and hooligans. They said he spent a few years on the rails, and that he wasn’t a stranger to the strong arm of the law. He’d robbed, connived, beaten, lied, and, in all likelihood, killed. He was the type of sinner that even Jesus steered clear of.
“Cuss and vinegar’s all that’s in his soul,” was the way Mama said it. And she knew better than anyone, as Coleson Masters was her daddy.
Mama spent the better part of my life keeping us as far away from Coleson as we could get. Not so much to spare me his influence as to spare her own ego, I always thought. Her ears would burn red at the mention of his name; and when people said a boy like me needed a strong male role model, she’d shake her head and reply, “Strongest thing a boy needs is his mama.” If there was grace to give Coleson, it wasn’t coming from her, and I resented her for it.
One July afternoon, I was digging fence posts in our back acre. The sun was beating down like drum on my neck. Post digging is one of those jobs that requires a fair amount of cursing, and I was reaching far back in the corners of my memory for some of my daddy’s gems. Cussing and digging was taking all of my focus. I didn’t even hear the old Ford until it was in our field.
I stopped and wiped sweat off my face with the back of my glove as Coleson Masters himself climbed out of his green truck and leaned against the hood gazing at me, his arms crossed across his chest.
He aimed his chin at the fence. “Posting. If that ain’t the worst thing to do to a boy in July, I don’t know what is.”
I looked back over my progress. I’d managed three posts in an hour, but they were nothing to be proud of, leaning like weary soldiers.
“Posting teaches perseverance, Mama says.”
He smiled at that, his lips stretching tight beneath his white whiskers. “You better come with me, boy.”
If Mama had been nearby – if anyone had been nearby – I wouldn’t have considered going with Coleson. But the truth was, I’d watched him from the corner of my eye my whole life. Talk of mobsters and murderers only ignited my curiosity. I was a twelve-year-old boy, after all, and Coleson was my Grandpap. Besides, he wasn’t someone you said no to. I climbed into the truck.
The man himself didn’t exactly smell like roses, but his truck was pristine. Sunlight glinted off the silver knobs of the radio. I tried not to touch anything as we pulled out onto the dirt road. We drove in silence toward the tree line, each minute making me more anxious. Years of questions that had been stewing in me congealed into thick silence in my head. I slid my hands under my legs, clamping my arms to my sides, trying to squeeze out the butterflies so I could talk.
Once in the forest, the road narrowed into nothing but a rutted trail. Soon enough, the trail ended. Coleson parked and got out, motioning me to follow. I scrambled over rocks and roots, taking three steps to his one. We climbed up and up, farther than I’d ever dared to venture. Finally, we rounded a bend and had nowhere to go but over the edge of a cliff. Coleson stood, arms crossed, gazing out over the valley.
Without looking at me, he said, “You’ve heard stories about me, haven’t ya, son?”
“Yes, sir.” My voice was small, childish.
Coleson turned toward me, his hand falling on the hunting knife strapped to his belt.
“Your mama’s stubborn, but she’s smart. She’s been right to keep you clear of me all these years. But a boy needs a man to teach him certain things.” His eyes fixed on me, and I took an involuntary step back.
Coleson pulled the knife from its case, reaching for my arm. I barely struggled against his grip. With a quick motion, the knife slipped through the skin of my palm. Blood burst out of the cut like cattle out of a gate. I blinked back tears, too shocked to cry.
“This is life, boy. It’s hard and surprising, and it hurts like hell.”
He pulled me forward, toward the ledge. I gasped and tried to yank away, fear choking me. He wrapped an arm around my neck and easily pushed me forward. I clawed at his arms, streaking them with my blood.
“This is life, too,” he said, his voice hot in my ear. “You’ll get pushed around, closer to the edge every time.”
I tried to kick him. “Let me go!”
A laugh rumbled up from within him, bouncing me against his chest.
“That’s right, boy. Fight it. Fight the edge with everything in you.”
He held me there as I struggled. Suddenly, he turned and released me. I fell to the ground, scrambling back as fast as I could. I expected him to come after me again, and hurried to my feet.
But Coleson wasn’t even looking at me now. He stood inches from the ledge, his shoulders hunched.
“Nobody taught me to fight,” he said, his voice hoarse. He slumped down to the ground and sat with his legs dangling. “A boy needs a man to teach him strength, and I’m all you’ve got.”
I considered him. He looked small sitting there.
“No,” I said, realization dawning on me as I spoke. “Mama’s all the strength I need.”
He looked up at me, blinking against the sun.
I felt courage. “You went over the edge, but Mama never has. She taught me. She’s what I’ve got.”
I turned and walked down the mountain, leaving Coleson Masters alone on the ledge.