"The Ransom of Red Chief" is among the most beloved short stories in the canon of American literature. Author O. Henry gives us an ironic tale of comic reversals as he turns his bumbling bad guys into sympathetic figures at the mercy of their intended victim. Originally published in 1910, "The Ransom of Red Chief" is a fast-paced, amusing story that can be appreciated by anyone who has ever been, or encountered, a 10-year-old boy.
Sam and Bill
"The Ransom of Red Chief" is narrated by Sam, one of the story's erstwhile villains. Sam and his partner Bill Driscoll are a pair of habitual "ne'er do wells" in need of money to pull off a big swindle in western Illinois. They have stuck together through police raids, train robberies, poker games and cyclones. But nothing in their criminal past has prepared them for the pre-adolescent force-of-nature that is Johnny Dorset. Sam hints at the outcome of the story with his opening sentence: "It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you."
The irony begins almost immediately as Sam and Bill find themselves in Summit, Ala., which Sam describes as "flat as a flannel-cake." The crooks plan to raise money by kidnapping the son of Ebenezer Dorset, one of Summit's leading citizens. In an obvious nod to Charles Dickens, Ebenezer is "respectable and tight ... a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser." Sam and Bill are certain Dorset will pay a $2,000 ransom for the safe return of his only son. But the kidnapping plot begins to unravel as soon as they meet the boy.
Grabbing the Boy
In a bit of foreshadowing, Sam, whose narration is sprinkled with gratuitous polysyllabic vocabulary, describes interrupting their intended victim while he is throwing rocks at a kitten. In the first of many insults suffered by Bill, the boy cracks him squarely in the eye with a piece of brick. The kidnappers struggle with Johnny before forcing him into their buggy. Their troubles are just beginning.
At the Hideout
Sam and Bill plan to hold their victim in a mountain cave until the ransom is paid. Fate, however, has different plans. Johnny decides he enjoys this "camping" trip. He assumes the character of "Red Chief" and proceeds to terrorize his captors. Bill is nearly scalped while he sleeps, has a red-hot potato dropped down his shirt and is ridden like a horse. "Red Chief"'s behavior improves only when Sam and Bill threaten to take him home. In a stream-of-consciousness monologue, Red Chief reveals, among other things, that he does not like school or girls, and that parrots can talk but monkeys cannot. He wonders why oranges are round and if stars are hot. In short, he behaves like a 10 year-old boy. Meanwhile, Sam and Bill wonder if anyone would pay to get this unruly boy back and decide to reduce the ransom demand to $1,500.
The Ransom Is Paid
The hapless kidnappers, by now fully cowed by their captive, receive an answer to their ransom demand. Dorset will take his son back if the kidnappers pay him $250. He also suggests that, for their own safety, Sam and Bill return Johnny at night, so the neighbors will not know who brought him home. The story ends with the shaken kidnappers, $250 poorer, frantically fleeing on foot toward Canada. Overweight Bill leads the way.
About O. Henry
William Sidney Porter assumed the pen name O. Henry while serving a 5-year federal prison sentence after being convicted of embezzlement. While in prison, Porter transformed himself into an acclaimed author of short stories, known for their wit and surprise endings. Among his most enduring stories are "The Gift of the Magi," "The Cop and the Anthem" and, of course, "The Ransom of Red Chief"
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