murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Jim Dickinson's Head


by Harold Ward

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The Black Mask | Aug. 1920 | Vol. 1 | No. 5

Est. Read Time: 14 mins

There being no place at the bar, he quickly made one for himself by shooting in cold blood a poor Swede, whose place he coveted. Before the murmur of anger and astonishment had fairly started, he stepped across his victim’s twitching body to the blood-bespattered bar and downed the liquor which the latter had just poured out.



Jim Dickinson’s head, pickled in a jar of alcohol, reposes in the dishonored fastness of a dusty-closet in Doctor Wright’s office. It has been all of a half century since I assisted the doctor’s father, old Doc. Wright, in separating it from its trunk that dark, stormy night out in the weed-grown potters’ field. Yet, last night, when I looked at the grisly relic, the face wore the same wolfish grin that it had borne in life, the fangs were skinned back ferociously like the tusks of an angry boar, and the one good eye—the other had been gouged out in a fight years before—glared malevolently, insolently, leeringly, as if, even in death, the owner found a certain grim pleasure in cheating the law which had declared that head and body must remain intact.

Jim Dickinson’s body has, in the natural course of events, long been incorporated with the black earth slime from which it came. Over it, the loathsome worms have long since ceased to hold their ghoulish revelry. His filthy soul is without doubt in the hell it created for itself. As for his head—the head he lost to Doc. Wright in a poker game, and which the whisky-sodden old physic dispenser claimed from the grave rather than brave the unspeakable wrath of the dead outlaw—that is another story. Doc wanted the head because of the thickness of the skull, which had withstood, without cracking, a tattoo from the butt end of a revolver in the hands of a frenzied man. And Dickinson wanted him to have it, because it had been fairly won and the only point of honor he ever observed was the payment of his gambling debts. It is of Jim Dickinson’s malformed headland the black cat with the devil’s temper, and Creole May, the outcast, that this story is written.




Where Jim Dickinson was spawned, or whelped—or whatever the inception of an anomaly like him can be called—is a question. My personal opinion is that he was never born—that he was created from the slimy, green frog spit that gathers in a scum on stagnant muck—but the preachers will probably take issue with me on that point. At any rate, I know of my own knowledge that there were more maggots of deviltry squirming inside the blackness of his skull than could ever exist in the same space in hell.

Jim Dickinson made his first bid for our attention by appearing in Black Peter’s saloon one dark, stormy night—a big, hulking figure of a man with a broken, hooked nose and a black, tangled thatch of whiskers. His huge, misshapen head stuck out, turtle-wise, on a thick, bull neck. His thin, cruel lips were drawn back in a snarl of vindictive hatred of the world in general, over yellowed fangs so large as to almost appear artificial. One socket was empty. From the other blazed an orb, so badly twisted out of shape by the scar from the wound that had destroyed the other, that it looked to be almost in the center of his forehead, giving him a horrible, ogre-like appearance. There was nothing human about him. He was an animal.

Black Peter’s den was crowded that night. Finding no open space at the bar, Dickinson made one for himself by shooting, in cold blood, a poor Swede whose place he coveted. Before the murmur of anger and astonishment had fairly started, he stepped across his victim’s twitching body to the blood-bespattered bar and downed the liquor which the latter had just poured out. His baleful eye gleamed from under his mop of hair, challenging the world to dispute his right. The Swede was a stranger in the camp, and the ferocious cruelty and simian-like appearance of the slayer was such as to make the average man think twice before taking up a dead man’s quarrel.

Where he had come from no one knew. Nor did his attitude towards the world at large tend to encourage familiarity. By that one venomous deed he became the bully of the camp. From then until his death he held his sway over the scum of the earth that had gathered there by sheer devilishness and wanton cruelties. He was a thief, a crook, a gambler and a red handed killer—a beast—a thing of evil.

The only sense of decency he had was in the payment of his gambling debts. He would murder a man in cold blood without a pang of remorse in order to filch from his pocket the money with which to pay a debt of honor. His philosophy of life was as warped and crooked as his twisted soul. And yet, we allowed him to live because we feared him.

Take the affair with the gang from Devil’s Gulch. Originally, there had been six of them pitted against him, as a result of some mixup with one of the partners. By shooting straight, Dickinson whittled the number down to three before they caught him at the edge of camp with a bullet through his leg and a horse that dropped dead in its tracks.

He had no friends. He expected no assistance. Those of us who were at leisure gathered around to enjoy the spectacle, and to see that the strangers handled the affair in a strictly ethical manner. The only tree in that part of the state was a stunted cottonwood, the lower limbs of which were but a few feet above his head as he stood erect. His gun was empty and he was apparently exhausted.

Hence, they attempted to send him into the presence of his maker without going to the trouble of binding him, thinking, no doubt, that he would die game and save them any unnecessary trouble. They were not as well informed on the general cussedness of the man, however, as they should have been—a fact which resulted disastrously for the visitors. For Dickinson, instead of giving up the ghost without a fight, made a mighty leap and seized the lower limb with both hands, taking the strain off his neck.

Doc. Wright, drunker and more vitriolic than usual, was among the spectators. The dissipated old reprobate chuckled gleefully and hammered the outlaw smartly over the knuckles with his cane.

“Leggo that tree!” he yelled. “Why the hell can’t you die like a man? You yellow dog! You’re trying to cheat me out of your head!”

With the speed of a panther, Dickinson hung by one hand, slipped the noose over his head with the other, kicked one of his captors in the face as he hung there, and vanquished the other two in a fair fight, fists against gun. And, when he had completed the job, he humbly apologized to Doc. Wright for not allowing them to hang him so that the bonesetter could claim his honest winnings.




To cave men like Jim Dickinson, love comes but once—and in ways that are peculiar and dark. That he loved Creole May in his own fashion there is not a doubt. And, like his aboriginal ancestors, he demonstrated his affection by beating the lady of his choice whenever opportunity offered. And she, recognizing, in the subtle way that women have, that his display of brutality was only a cover for the flame of love that smoldered in his heart, took her beatings, whimpering, but uncomplainingly, and, seeking an outlet for her feelings, lavished her affections on Michael.

Michael was an ugly brute of a cat; black of fur and short of temper—in short, a feline double of Dickinson. Dickinson hated him with a deep, jealous hatred—hated him because Creole May loved him. With the peculiarity of a woman, she treated her lord with humbleness and humility, fighting his battles and cooking his meals in a true wifely way—until he laid hands on the cat. That, she would not allow. And Dickinson, loving the swarthy strumpet who shared his bed and board, feared to vent his feelings on the animal, lest he drive the female creature from his side.

Cheeta, the squaw, who was reputed to be a witch, had warned him against black cats—warned him as she cursed him for the killing of her husband. Dickinson sought to close her mouth by knocking her down. But she refused to be silenced.

“It’ll get ye, curse ye! It’ll get ye!” she howled, shaking her skinny fist at the one-eyed man. “A black cat’ll be the death of ye! A black cat’ll send ye to hell, and’ll spit at ye while ye’r roastin’! Damn ye! Ye spawn of the devil!”

In self-defense, he was compelled to choke her into unconsciousness. But her screams still echoed in his ears. Nor could he drown them in drink. For the maggots in his head were the kind that alcohol stimulates, rather than deadens.

We had our priest. Father O’Laughlin, a warm-hearted little chap who sought, with every means at his command, to regenerate the place and bring its inhabitants into the fold. He met with scant success to say the most. But he persisted and, because he was a man among men, measured by men’s standards, he gained our respect and love, even though we refused to follow the cross.

In some mysterious manner, Father O’Laughlin learned that Creole May had once been baptized in his faith. Immediately, he set about seeking a way to win her back to the church. But she had slipped too far down the scale of righteousness and virtue. She gave no heed to the messages the good padre sent her, time after time, begging her presence at the little church in the valley, with its cross of spotless white. Of two evils, she had been taught to fear Jim Dickinson worse than the threat of hell. And Dickinson, his soul already forfeited to the devil and his head honestly lost in a poker game, waiting only his death to be claimed, forbade her responding to the priest’s appeal. But, to the latter, she was a brand to be plucked from the burning, and after several weeks had elapsed, he determined to visit her in person and appeal to her better nature. For Father O’Laughlin loved humanity and to him none had dropped so low that he could not be saved.

On the evening selected by Father O’Laughlin for his visit, Dickinson, who was violently jealous, having been called away on some expedition outside the law, had taken precautions tending to keep any of May’s admirers away from the cabin, by planting a bear trap in the dirt just outside the door. To this May submitted dumbly, and without bitterness. She was a woman, and her philosophy taught her that a woman is the rightful prey of the man strong enough to take her. The method of taking did not enter into her thoughts.

They lived in a tumbledown shack far up the mountainside and approached by a single, narrow path, nicked high in the cliff. For Dickinson was a bit of a strategist, and in building looked forward to a possible siege following some new outrage.

When she saw the little priest slowly puffing up the path, she realized for the first time that something of evil might result from Dickinson’s efficient though brutal attempt to capture his rivals. She was willing to stand his abuse, but sight of the priest brought remembrances of her better days, and over her swept a sense of shame. She rebelled against the man of God seeing her in her squalor and misery. There was no way to flee, for the path over which he was approaching was the only way from the place. And that path would bring him directly into the jaws of the trap.

Creole May, for the first time in her long career of shame and sorrow, was panic-stricken. There was but one door to the shack. To dodge out of it, even in the dusk of the swiftly falling twilight, would betray her presence to the visitor. Nor was there a bush or a rock in the vicinity, behind which she could take refuge. Yet she could not remain. She was not given to analyzing her sentiments. She had a vague feeling that she was not fit to meet the man who represented in that wild territory the church of her innocent youth—not for the punishment he might bring—for she knew that he brought only a message of love—but as an erring child fears the parent who governs by kindness. Physical pain she could endure. But she knew that Father O’Laughlin ruled his flock by love. And love, except the love she lavished on Michael, was missing from her strange life.

So, like a child caught in some mischievous prank, she peeped around the doorway and watched the head of the priest just appearing over the little knoll. Her foot rested on the chain which, fastened to the bed and dragging across the floor, was attached to the bear trap. To leave the snare in its present location meant injury to the priest. Even if the jaws did not break his leg, Dickinson might return ere she could free him. And Dickinson, in a jealous rage, cared nothing for God, man nor devil. He might even kill the good Father.

In spite of her fear of Dickinson’s vengeance over the removal of his snare, the religion of her girlhood surged forward in her thoughts. Father O’Laughlin must be saved. To think was to act. Hastily grasping the chain, she gave a mighty heave and pulled the trap out of the dirt and dragged it into the house.

Pulling down the blanket on the battered bed, she laid the trap on the mattress, and laid the covering over it again. Then, she dived hastily under the bed, just as she heard the priest’s step outside the door.

Father O’Laughlin, receiving no answer to his repeated rappings, turned sadly and wended his way back again down the mountain path.

With fear and trembling, Creole May listened to the padre’s retreating footsteps. Then, as they died away in the distance, she arose and, seating herself in one of the two broken chairs the cabin afforded, she gave way to meditation and tears, sharing her troubles with black Michael, her only friend.

Dickinson, returning earlier than usual, found the cabin in darkness and May in tears. The moon, shining brightly on the front of the shack, showed him that the trap had been removed, ere he reached the spot.

With a bellow of rage, he leaped through the open doorway. He stood for a second, his single, bloodshot eye accustoming itself to the darkness of the interior. Then, with a snarl, he turned upon the woman.

“Where is he?” he demanded, shaking her as a terrier shakes a rat. “Damn you, tell me! Where’s the man you had in here?”

She attempted to answer—to explain. He refused to listen. The words were choked off in her throat by the pressure of his huge muscular fingers. Then, holding her at arm’s length with his left hand, he smashed blow after blow into her face with his right until, tiring, he hurled her into the corner, a dying, battered, unconscious heap.

The cat, true to its nature, spit angrily at the invader. Roaring like a maddened bull, Dickinson aimed a kick at the animal. Michael, attempting to dodge out of the crazed man’s way, became tangled between his legs. In the darkness, Dickinson stumbled and fell, sprawling, across the bed.

His huge head struck the trigger of the bear trap hidden beneath the blanket, squarely, and with the force of a battering ram. The jaws flew together with a snap, closing about the thick neck with a grip that had been made to hold a grizzly king.

Dickinson threshed about spasmodically for a second, his eye bulging out of its socket … . His finger worked convulsively … then, twitching slightly, he lay quiet.

On the foot of the bed Michael, his greenish-yellow eyes gleaming like twin fires, humped his back and spit in accordance with the prophecy of Cheeta, while Jim Dickinson’s worthless soul entered into Hell.

Two nights later I helped Doc. Wright claim the head he had won, and which Jim Dickinson was ready to pay.