The Head Hunter
by O Henry
When the war between Spain and George Dewey was over, I went to the
Philippine Islands. There I remained as bushwhacker correspondent for
my paper until its managing editor notified me that an eight-hundred-
word cablegram describing the grief of a pet carabao over the death of
an infant Moro was not considered by the office to be war news. So I
resigned, and came home.
On board the trading-vessel that brought me back I pondered much
upon the strange things I had sensed in the weird archipelago of the
yellow-brown people. The manoeuvres and skirmishings of the petty war
interested me not: I was spellbound by the outlandish and unreadable
countenance of that race that had turned its expressionless gaze upon
us out of an unguessable past.
Particularly during my stay in Mindanao had I been fascinated and
attracted by that delightfully original tribe of heathen known as the
head-hunters. Those grim, flinty, relentless little men, never seen,
but chilling the warmest noonday by the subtle terror of their
concealed presence, paralleling the trail of their prey through
unmapped forests, across perilous mountain-tops, adown bottomless
chasms, into uninhabitable jungles, always near with the invisible
hand of death uplifted, betraying their pursuit only by such signs as
a beast or a bird or a gliding serpent might make-a twig crackling in
the awful, sweat-soaked night, a drench of dew showering from the
screening foliage of a giant tree, a whisper at even from the rushes
of a water-level-a hint of death for every mile and every hour-they
amused me greatly, those little fellows of one idea.
When you think of it, their method is beautifully and almost
hilariously effective and simple.
You have your hut in which you live and carry out the destiny that
was decreed for you. Spiked to the jamb of your bamboo doorway is a
basket made of green withes, plaited. From time to time, as vanity or
ennui or love or jealousy or ambition may move you, you creep forth
with your snickersnee and take up the silent trail. Back from it you
come, triumphant, bearing the severed, gory head of your victim, which
you deposit with pardonable pride in the basket at the side of your
door. It may be the head of your enemy, your friend, or a stranger,
according as competition, jealousy, or simple sportiveness has been
your incentive to labor.
In any case, your reward is certain. The village men, in passing,
stop to congratulate you, as your neighbor on weaker planes of life
stops to admire and praise the begonias in your front yard. Your
particular brown maid lingers, with fluttering bosom, casting soft
tiger's eyes at the evidence of your love for her. You chew betel-nut
and listen, content, to the intermittent soft drip from the ends of
the severed neck arteries. And you show your teeth and grunt like a
water-buffalo—which is as near as you can come to laughing-at the
thought that the cold, acephalous body of your door ornament is being
spotted by wheeling vultures in the Mindanaoan wilds.
Truly, the life of the merry head-hunter captivated me. He had
reduced art and philosophy to a simple code. To take your adversary's
head, to basket it at the portal of your castle, to see it lying
there, a dead thing, with its cunning and stratagems and power gone—
Is there a better way to foil his plots, to refute his arguments, to
establish your superiority over his skill and wisdom?
The ship that brought me home was captained by an erratic Swede,
who changed his course and deposited me, with genuine compassion, in a
small town on the Pacific coast of one of the Central American
republics, a few hundred miles south of the port to which he had
engaged to convey me. But I was wearied of movement and exotic
fancies; so I leaped contentedly upon the firm sands of the village of
Mojada, telling myself I should be sure to find there the rest that I
craved. After all, far better to linger there (I thought), lulled by
the sedative plash of the waves and the rustling of palm-fronds, than
to sit upon the horsehair sofa of my parental home in the East, and
there, cast down by currant wine and cake, and scourged by fatuous
relatives, drivel into the ears of gaping neighbors sad stories of the
death of colonial governors.
When I first saw Chloe Greene she was standing, all in white, in
the doorway of her father's tile-roofed 'dobe house. She was
polishing a silver cup with a cloth, and she looked like a pearl laid
against black velvet. She turned on me a flatteringly protracted but
a wiltingly disapproving gaze, and then went inside, humming a light
song to indicate the value she placed upon my existence.
Small wonder: for Dr. Stamford (the most disreputable professional
man between Juneau and Valparaiso) and I were zigzagging along the
turfy street, tunelessly singing the words of Auld Lang Syne to the
air of Muzzer's Little Coal-Black Coon. We had come from the ice
factory, which was Mojada's palace of wickedness, where we had been
playing billiards and opening black bottles, white with frost, that we
dragged with strings out of old Sandoval's ice-cold vats.
I turned in sudden rage to Dr. Stamford, as sober as the verger of
a cathedral. In a moment I had become aware that we were swine cast
before a pearl.
"You beast," I said, "this is half your doing. And the other half
is the fault of this cursed country. I'd better have gone back to
Sleepy-town and died in a wild orgy of currant wine and buns than to
have had this happen."
Stamford filled the empty street with his roaring laughter.
"You too!" he cried. "And all as quick as the popping of a cork.
Well, she does seem to strike agreeably upon the retina. But don't
burn your fingers. All Mojada will tell you that Louis Devoe is the
"We will see about that," said I. "And, perhaps, whether he is a
man as well as the man."
I lost no time in meeting Louis Devoe. That was easily
accomplished, for the foreign colony in Mojada numbered scarce a
dozen; and they gathered daily at a half-decent hotel kept by a Turk,
where they managed to patch together the fluttering rags of country
and civilization that were left them. I sought Devoe before I did my
pearl of the doorway, because I had learned a little of the game of
war, and knew better than to strike for a prize before testing the
strength of the enemy.
A sort of cold dismay-something akin to fear-filled me when I had
estimated him. I found a man so perfectly poised, so charming, so
deeply learned in the world's rituals, so full of tact, courtesy, and
hospitality, so endowed with grace and ease and a kind of careless,
haughty power that I almost overstepped the bounds in probing him, in
turning him on the spit to find the weak point that I so craved for
him to have. But I left him whole-I had to make bitter acknowledgment
to myself that Louis Devoe was a gentleman worthy of my best blows;
and I swore to give him them. He was a great merchant of the country,
a wealthy importer and exporter. All day he sat in a fastidiously
appointed office, surrounded by works of art and evidences of his high
culture, directing through glass doors and windows the affairs of his
In person he was slender and hardly tall. His small, well-shaped
head was covered with thick, brown hair, trimmed short, and he wore a
thick, brown beard also cut close and to a fine point. His manners
were a pattern.
Before long I had become a regular and a welcome visitor at the
Greene home. I shook my wild habits from me like a worn-out cloak. I
trained for the conflict with the care of a prize-fighter and the
self-denial of a Brahmin.
As for Chloe Greene, I shall weary you with no sonnets to her
eyebrow. She was a splendidly feminine girl, as wholesome as a
November pippin, and no more mysterious than a windowpane. She had
whimsical little theories that she had deduced from life, and that
fitted the maxims of Epictetus like princess gowns. I wonder, after
all, if that old duffer wasn't rather wise!
Chloe had a father, the Reverend Homer Greene, and an intermittent
mother, who sometimes palely presided over a twilight teapot. The
Reverend Homer was a burr-like man with a life-work. He was writing a
concordance to the Scriptures, and had arrived as far as Kings.
Being, presumably, a suitor for his daughter's hand, I was timber for
his literary outpourings. I had the family tree of Israel drilled
into my head until I used to cry aloud in my sleep: "And Aminadab
begat Jay Eye See," and so forth, until he had tackled another book.
I once made a calculation that the Reverend Homer's concordance would
be worked up as far as the Seven Vials mentioned in Revelations about
the third day after they were opened.
Louis Devoe, as well as I, was a visitor and an intimate friend of
the Greenes. It was there I met him the oftenest, and a more
agreeable' man or a more accomplished I have never hated in my life.
Luckily or unfortunately, I came to be accepted as a Boy. My
appearance was youthful, and I suppose I had that pleading and
homeless air that always draws the motherliness that is in women and
the cursed theories and hobbies of pater-familiases.
Chloe called me "Tommy," and made sisterly fun of my attempts to
woo her. With Devoe she was vastly more reserved. He was the man of
romance, one to stir her imagination and deepest feelings had her
fancy leaned toward him. I was closer to her, but standing in no
glamour; I had the task before me of winning her in what seems to me
the American way of fighting—with cleanness and pluck and everyday
devotion to break away the barriers of friendship that divided us, and
to take her, if I could, between sunrise and dark, abetted by neither
moonlight nor music nor foreign wiles.
Chloe gave no sign of bestowing her blithe affections upon either
of us. But one day she let out to me an inkling of what she preferred
in a man. It was tremendously interesting to me, but not illuminating
as to its application. I had been tormenting her for the dozenth time
with the statement and catalogue of my sentiments toward her.
"Tommy," said she, "I don't want a man to show his love for me by
leading an army against another country and blowing people off the
earth with cannons."
"If you mean that the opposite way," I answered, "as they say women
do, I'll see what I can do. The papers are full of this diplomatic
row in Russia. My people know some big people in Washington who are
right next to the army people, and I could get an artillery commission
"I'm not that way," interrupted Chloe. "I mean what I say. It
isn't the big things that are done in the world, Tommy, that count
with a woman. When the knights were riding abroad in their armor to
slay dragons, many a stay-at-home page won a lonesome lady's hand by
being on the spot to pick up her glove and be quick with her cloak
when the wind blew. The man I am to like best, whoever he shall be,
must show his love in little ways. He must never forget, after
hearing it once, that I do not like to have any one walk at my left
side; that I detest bright-colored neckties; that I prefer to sit with
my back to a light; that I like candied violets; that I must not be
talked to when I am looking at the moonlight shining on water, and
that I very, very often long for dates stuffed with English walnuts."
"Frivolity," I said, with a frown. "Any well-trained servant would
be equal to such details."
"And he must remember," went on Chloe, to remind me of what I want
when I do not know, myself, what I want."
"You're rising in the scale," I said. "What you seem to need is a
"And if I say that I am dying to hear a Beethoven sonata, and stamp
my foot when I say it, he must know by that that what my soul craves
is salted almonds; and he will have them ready in his pocket."
"Now," said I, "I am at a loss. I do not know whether your soul's
affinity is to be an impresario or a fancy grocer."
Chole turned her pearly smile upon me.
"Take less than half of what I said as a jest," she went on. "And
don't think too lightly of the little things, Boy. Be a paladin if
you must, but don't let it show on you. Most women are only very big
children, and most men are only very little ones. Please us; don't
try to overpower us. When we want a hero we can make one out of even
a plain grocer the third time he catches our handkerchief before it
falls to the ground."
That evening I was taken down with pernicious fever. That is a
kind of coast fever with improvements and high-geared attachments.
Your temperature goes up among the threes and fours and remains
there, laughing scornfully and feverishly at the cinchona trees and
the coal- tar derivatives. Pernicious fever is a case for a simple
mathematician instead of a doctor. It is merely this formula:
Vitality + the desire to live—the duration of the fever the result.
I took to my bed in the two-roomed thatched hut where I had been
comfortably established, and sent for a gallon of rum. That was not
for myself. Drunk, Stamford was the best doctor between the Andes and
the Pacific. He came, sat at my bedside, and drank himself into
"My boy," said he, "my lily-white and reformed Romeo, medicine will
do you no good. But I will give you quinine, which, being bitter,
will arouse in you hatred and anger-two stimulants that will add ten
per cent. to your chances. You are as strong as a caribou calf, and
you will get well if the fever doesn't get in a knockout blow when
you're off your guard."
For two weeks I lay on my back feeling like a Hindoo widow on a
burning ghat. Old Atasca, an untrained Indian nurse, sat near the
door like a petrified statue of What's-the-Use, attending to her
duties, which were, mainly, to see that time went by without slipping
a cog. Sometimes I would fancy myself back in the Philippines, or, at
worse times, sliding off the horsehair sofa in Sleepytown.
One afternoon I ordered Atasca to vamose, and got up and dressed
carefully. I took my temperature, which I was pleased to find 104. I
paid almost dainty attention to my dress, choosing solicitously a
necktie of a dull and subdued hue. The mirror showed that I was
looking little the worse from my illness. The fever gave brightness
to my eyes and color to my face. And while I looked at my reflection
my color went and came again as I thought of Chloe Greene and the
millions of eons that had passed since I'd seen her, and of Louis
Devoe and the time he had gained on me.
I went straight to her house. I seemed to float rather than walk;
I hardly felt the ground under my feet; I thought pernicious fever
must be a great boon to make one feel so strong.
I found Chloe and Louis Devoe sitting under the awning in front of
the house. She jumped up and met me with a double handshake.
"I'm glad, glad, glad to see you out again!" she cried, every word
a pearl strung on the string of her sentence. "You are well,
Tommy—or better, of course. I wanted to come to see you, but they
wouldn't let me.
"Oh yes," said I, carelessly, "it was nothing. Merely a little
fever. I am out again, as you see."
We three sat there and talked for half an hour or so. Then Chloe
looked out yearningly and almost piteously across the ocean. I could
see in her sea-blue eyes some deep and intense desire. Devoe, curse
him! saw it too.
"What is it?" we asked, in unison.
"Cocoanut-pudding," said Chloe, pathetically. "I've wanted
some—oh, so badly, for two days. It's got beyond a wish; it's an
"The cocoanut season is over," said Devoe, in that voice of his
that gave thrilling interest to his most commonplace words. "I hardly
think one could be found in Mojada. The natives never use them except
when they are green and the milk is fresh. They sell all the ripe
ones to the fruiterers."
"Wouldn't a broiled lobster or a Welsh rabbit do as well?" I
remarked, with the engaging idiocy of a pernicious-fever convalescent.
Chloe came as near to pouting as a sweet disposition and a perfect
profile would allow her to come.
The Reverend Homer poked his ermine-lined face through the doorway
and added a concordance to the conversation.
"Sometimes," said he, "old Campos keeps the dried nuts in his
little store on the hill. But it would be far better, my daughter, to
restrain unusual desires, and partake thankfully of the daily dishes
that the Lord has set before us."
"Stuff!" said I.
"How was that?" asked the Reverend Homer, sharply.
"I say it's tough," said I, "to drop into the vernacular, that Miss
Greene should be deprived of the food she desires-a simple thing like
kalsomine-pudding. Perhaps," I continued, solicitously, "some pickled
walnuts or a fricassee of Hungarian butternuts would do as well."
Every one looked at me with a slight exhibition of curiosity.
Louis Devoe arose and made his adieus. I watched him until he had
sauntered slowly and grandiosely to the corner, around which he turned
to reach his great warehouse and store. Chloe made her excuses, and
went inside for a few minutes to attend to some detail affecting the
seven-o'clock dinner. She was a passed mistress in housekeeping. I
had tasted her puddings and bread with beatitude.
When all had gone, I turned casually and saw a basket made of
plaited green withes hanging by a nail outside the door-jamb. With a
rush that made my hot temples throb there came vividly to my mind
recollections of the head-hunters—those grim, flinty, relentless
little men, never seen, but chilling the warmest noonday by the subtle
terror of their concealed presence. . . . From time to time, as
vanity or ennui or love or jealousy or ambition may move him, one
creeps forth with his snickersnee and takes up the silent trail. . .
. Back he comes, triumphant, bearing the severed, gory head of his
victim . . . His particular brown or white maid lingers, with
fluttering bosom, casting soft tiger's eyes at the evidence of his
love for her.
I stole softly from the house and returned to my hut. From its
supporting nails in the wall I took a machete as heavy as a butcher's
cleaver and sharper than a safety-razor. And then I chuckled softly
to myself, and set out to the fastidiously appointed private office of
Monsieur Louis Devoe, usurper to the hand of the Pearl of the Pacific.
He was never slow at thinking; he gave one look at my face and
another at the weapon in my hand as I entered his door, and then he
seemed to fade from my sight. I ran to the back door, kicked it open,
and saw him running like a deer up the road toward the wood that began
two hundred yards away. I was after him, with a shout. I remember
hearing children and women screaming, and seeing them flying from the
He was fleet, but I was stronger. A mile, and I had almost come up
with him. He doubled cunningly and dashed into a brake that extended
into a small canon. I crashed through this after him, and in five
minutes had him cornered in an angle of insurmountable cliffs. There
his instinct of self-preservation steadied him, as it will steady even
animals at bay. He turned to me, quite calm, with a ghastly smile.
"Oh, Rayburn!" he said, with such an awful effort at ease that I
was impolite enough to laugh rudely in his face. "Oh, Rayburn!" said
he, "come, let's have done with this nonsense. Of course, I know it's
the fever and you're not yourself; but collect yourself, man-give me
that ridiculous weapon, now, and let's go back and talk it over."
"I will go back," said I, "carrying your head with me. We will see
how charmingly it can discourse when it lies in the basket at her
"Come," said he, persuasively, "I think better of you than to
suppose that you try this sort of thing as a joke. But even the
vagaries of a fever-crazed lunatic come some time to a limit. What is
this talk about heads and baskets? Get yourself together and throw
away that absurd cane-chopper. What would Miss Greene think of you?"
he ended, with the silky cajolery that one would use toward a fretful
"Listen," said I. "At last you have struck upon the right note.
What would she think of me? Listen," I repeated.
"There are women," I said, "who look upon horsehair sofas and
currant wine as dross. To them even the calculated modulation of your
well- trimmed talk sounds like the dropping of rotten plums from a
tree in the night. They are the maidens who walk back and forth in
the villages, scorning the emptiness of the baskets at the doors of
the young men who would win them.
One such as they," I said, "is waiting. Only a fool would try to
win a woman by drooling like a braggart in her doorway or by waiting
upon her whims like a footman. They are all daughters of Herodias,
and to gain their hearts one must lay the heads of his enemies before
them with his own hands. Now, bend your neck, Louis Devoe. Do not be
a coward as well as a chatterer at a lady's tea-table."
"There, there!" said Devoe, falteringly. "You know me, don't you,
"Oh yes," I said, "I know you. I know you. I know you. But the
basket is empty. The old men of the village and the young men, and
both the dark maidens and the ones who are as fair as pearls walk back
and forth and see its emptiness. Will you kneel now, or must we have
a scuffle? It is not like you to make things go roughly and with bad
form. But the basket is waiting for your head."
With that he went to pieces. I had to catch him as he tried to
scamper past me like a scared rabbit. I stretched him out and got a
foot on his chest, but he squirmed like a worm, although I appealed
repeatedly to his sense of propriety and the duty he owed to himself
as a gentleman not to make a row.
But at last he gave me the chance, and I swung the machete.
It was not hard work. He flopped like a chicken during the six or
seven blows that it took to sever his head; but finally he lay still,
and I tied his head in my handkerchief. The eyes opened and shut
thrice while I walked a hundred yards. I was red to my feet with the
drip, but what did that matter? With delight I felt under my hands
the crisp touch of his short, thick, brown hair and close-trimmed
I reached the house of the Greenes and dumped the head of Louis
Devoe into the basket that still hung by the nail in the door-jamb. I
sat in a chair under the awning and waited. The sun was within two
hours of setting. Chloe came out and looked surprised.
"Where have you been, Tommy?" she asked. "You were gone when I
"Look in the basket," I said, rising to my feet. She looked, and
gave a little scream—of delight, I was pleased to note.
"Oh, Tommy!" she said. "It was just what I wanted you to do. It's
leaking a little, but that doesn't matter. Wasn't I telling you?
It's the little things that count. And you remembered."
Little things! She held the ensanguined head of Louis Devoe in her
white apron. Tiny streams of red widened on her apron and dripped
upon the floor. Her face was bright and tender.
"Little things, indeed!" I thought again. "The head-hunters are
right. These are the things that women like you to do for them."
Chloe came close to me. There was no one in sight. She looked tip
at me with sea-blue eyes that said things they had never said before.
"You think of me," she said. "You are the man I was describing.
You think of the little things, and they are what make the world
worth living in. The man for me must consider my little wishes, and
make me happy in small ways. He must bring me little red peaches in
December if I wish for them, and then I will love him till June. I
will have no knight in armor slaying his rival or killing dragons for
me. You please me very well, Tommy."
I stooped and kissed her. Then a moisture broke out on my
forehead, and I began to feel weak. I saw the red stains vanish from
Chloe's apron, and the head of Louis Devoe turn to a brown, dried
"There will be cocoanut-pudding for dinner, Tommy, boy," said
Chloe, gayly, "and you must come. I must go in for a little while."
She vanished in a delightful flutter.
Dr. Stamford tramped up hurriedly. He seized my pulse as though
it were his own property that I had escaped with.
"You are the biggest fool outside of any asylum!" he said, angrily.
"Why did you leave your bed? And the idiotic things you've been
doing!—and no wonder, with your pulse going like a sledge-hammer."
"Name some of them," said I.
"Devoe sent for me," said Stamford. "He saw you from his window go
to old Campos' store, chase him up the hill with his own yardstick,
and then come back and make off with his biggest cocoanut."
"It's the little things that count, after all," said I.
"It's your little bed that counts with you just now," said the
doctor. "You come with me at once, or I'll throw up the case. 'You're
as loony as a loon."
So I got no cocoanut-pudding that evening, but I conceived a
distrust as to the value of the method of the head-hunters. Perhaps
for many centuries the maidens of the villages may have been looking
wistfully at the heads in the baskets at the doorways, longing for
other and lesser trophies.