Call Courageous can be found in

Complete Northwest Novel Magazine, November 1937

Call Courageous


There was a debt he owed his uncle, and he faced death for weeks in order to pay it.

THERE'S no accounting for tastes; and psychology isn't an exact science purely because human reactions vary with a given stimulus—pull a knife on one man and he'll run, another, and he'll fight. But still it was disconcerting, to say the least, the way tough old Mel Martin took up with Lawton. The sourdoughs claimed Martin would use only one hand to lick his weight in wildcats, and further said if anybody went a-gunning for him to use steel-jacketed bullets, because lead would just splatter on his thick hide. Of course the old-timers might have exaggerated, but—well, Lawton...

He came into the Upper Koyukuk country in a blizzard, alone, and on the run. When he staggered into Footstool Bill's trading post he was anything but attractive. Lawton was on the plump order, not fat, but soft. His putty-like face, with the loose lips and pug nose, looked like some caricature of a crying child. Saliva had rolled down and frozen in his chin whiskers. Two things will cause that, intoxication or abject fear. And Lawton wasn't drunk.

"They're after me!" he panted hoarsely. "They're coming for me—goin' to kill me! Men, do something! For God's sake, help me!"

There were a half-dozen sourdoughs in Footstool Bill's post. They surveyed Lawton shrewdly, but, not knowing the play, they did nothing.

"How much do you want?" the plump one cried desperately. "I'll give all I've got for some help!"

"Who's after you?" asked Footstool Bill.

"Beet Nisonger and his gang!... Look, here! Here's the money!" Lawton blubbered, dragging a poke from under his parka. "Here! There's better than thirty ounces in it! It's yourn. I'll give it to anybody who takes me away from here! Lost my outfit back about fifteen mile through a soft spot in the river ice and I've got to get away!"

Not a face in the trading post changed so much as a flicker. Beet Nisonger is a name to conjure with, up beyond the Arctic Circle. Nisonger is not outlawed only because he is too clever. But everybody knows what he is. Merciless, brutal, he knows no code but that of his own making. Three times the law went after him, and three times a U.S. Marshal, sent to bring him in, just simply never returned. No evidence against Nisonger; no bodies were ever found. When at last he was apprehended and brought to trial on the original charge, two witnesses disappeared—and the others promptly "forgot" what they knew. Not a man to trifle with, Beet Nisonger... Lawton's thirty-odd ounces of gold dust wasn't enough to raise a finger among the sourdoughs.

The whine of dogs sounded from outside, and then mukluks creaked on the frozen surface. Lawton screamed in terror, and made a scrambling rush behind the counter as the door opened. But it was not Beet Nisonger who came in; no, the fog of the cold air rushing into the room swirled around the big figure of Mel Martin. As was his habit he glanced around at the faces to see if there was a stranger there—somebody he hadn't licked. But just seeing old acquaintances, he sighed and said:

"Boys, I brought some magazines along to trade with anybody for somethin' I ain't read more'n twice."

At the voice, Lawton's plump face peered around the edge of the counter and then the fellow scrambled for Martin, clasping his knees and blubbering out a plea in a manner that was embarrassing.

Sitka Red clucked sympathetically. It was just like somebody sticking a pin in a mule's hind leg, the way Lawton lathered around Martin, for the big man was hard and so entirely without fear you'd think he wouldn't know what the emotion was. Then Martin grabbed Lawton's shoulder by one big hand and heaved him upright, shaking him until his teeth rattled. Some of the boys looked away.

BUT you could always count on Martin to do the unexpected. Instead of smashing a fist to that blubbering mouth, the northerner said: "All right, now tell me without bawlin'." And his voice was gentle, as if he were speaking to a child. He listened gravely, and then said: "Sure, I'll help you. But keep your poke. I don't want your money."

Footstool Bill whistled in amazement, then grunted to Sitka Red: "I bet even money he's got a trick up his sleeve!"

"Even money hell! How much odds will you give?"

Martin and Lawton went out the door, then dodged back in. Up the trail from the frozen river was coming a ten-dog team and a sledge outfit, with a man running ahead and four following. The plump man was actually whining like a dog with fear.

"Shut that up!" snapped Martin, and his fist came with the words. Lawton slumped to the floor. "You're just helpin' him, huh?" Footstool Bill called. The sourdoughs laughed.

"Shut up, you wolves!" Martin roared. "Didn't want him screamin' when Nisonger comes in!" As he spoke he dragged Lawton through the door behind the counter.

"I know why," whispered Footstool Bill. "Martin's just spoilin' for a fight. That's why he's doin' this."

Sitka Red shook his head. "Dunno."

WHEN Beet Nisonger and his crew swaggered through the doorway, the sourdoughs inside had with extreme nonchalance sauntered to the edges of the room. This looked like plenty of trouble, and nobody wanted to be in on it—except Martin, who thrived on trouble. Martin casually was leaning against the end of the counter, shutting off access to that backroom door.

"I'm lookin' for a fat guy named Lawton," announced Beet Nisonger. "He's wanted by the law, and wanted bad."

"Since when was you the law?" asked Martin quietly.

"I'll be the law if the law can't take care of things! And I asked a question, Mel Martin!"

"Why are you so all-fired anxious to uphold the law?"

"Because I don't want no murder charge again' me!" the big man spat. "There's them which says it was me who shot that deputy marshal in Fairbanks. I didn't do it, and I know Lawton did. If I could catch the yellow-gut I'd make him talk and talk plenty. I'm a honest man and I don't want no suspicions—"

"Since when was you so all-fired particular about your reputation?"

Nisonger squinted, then said in a low voice: "Mel, you wouldn't want to be the man to shield the killer of deputy marshal Ken Cowley."

"Ken Cowley!" Martin had gone on a couple of manhunts with Cowley. More, he had had a couple of grand fistfights with the deputy marshal, which made them friends. Martin glanced at the rear door, then he said: "Never you mind about Lawton. I'll see that he talks!"

"By Joe! Then he's here!" roared the big man, interpreting that glance.

"But I'm dealin' with him," growled Martin, shoulders hunching like a bear. "You'll talk with Lawton—if you git by me."

Nisonger made a lunge, and Martin caught him just right—a fist cracked against the jaw and then as Nisonger's head snapped back from the blow he rammed into a wooden peg on the log wall, a hard peg which caught him just behind the right ear. Nisonger went down with his eyes crossing.

"Too bad," murmured Martin. "Figured on maybe a fight."

But the northerner didn't have to mourn long. The other four of the gang jumped him. You'd go a long ways to find as fine a bunch for scaring children as the associates of Beet Nisonger. One was a Bokharan Uzbek with typical Mongoloid features; another a Mackenzie River Eskimo outlawed by his tribe; while a third, darkly handsome except for a missing eye, had started life in the Tongan Islands. The fourth was a shriveled little Cockney with buck teeth. These four jumped Martin when their leader went down. The one-eyed Tongan rushed in brashly and Martin sent him sprawling with a single blow. The Cockney dived at the ...

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