This enjoyable/entertaining story, written in 1910, tells of a young boy held for ransom by two petty criminals, Bill Driscoll and Sam Howard. The two men are fugitives who have escaped to the deep South searching for an easy way to get their hands on $2,000 they need in order to launch a land fraud scheme in Illinois. They set their sights on the quiet town of Summit, Alabama because of the philoprogenitiveness - love for one's own children - that they believe is common in rural communities.
Bill and Sam decide they will kidnap the son of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset, demand a ransom of $2000, quickly collect the payoff, and be on their way. However, once they actually kidnap the boy and make their way to a hideout in the nearby hills, their plan quickly begins to unravel. Their young captive, a malevolent, red-headed brat who calls himself "Red Chief", actually enjoys his stay with his kidnappers, and thinks he's on a camping trip.
Red Chief proceeds to drive his captors to distraction with pranks and demands that they play wearying games with him, such as pretending to be a scout and using Bill as his horse. Bill and Sam are soon desperate to be rid of the little terror, they lower the price to $1,500 but still receive no answer. When they receive a reply to their ransom letter from Red Chief's father offering to take the boy off their hands for $250, they quickly return him and flee town as fast as they can.
Quoted from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ransom_of_Red_Chief
This short story by O. Henry does not only contain one single twist towards its end, which represents one of the decisive characteristics of this literary genre, but it reveals a series of twists: The two kidnappers are not really criminals; the kidnapped boy is the true boss in this "game", the boy's father is not only not worried about his son, but he would be happy if he didn't have to take him back. The ransom is not a ransom in the true sense of the word, but it represents a "negative" ranson: money which the kidnappers won't get, but which they have to pay to make their crime succeed. All the laws, then, which determine the story are the very opposite of those the readers expect and which are valid in real life. And all characters concerned are victims in their own way.
At first sight, "The Ransom of Red Chief" may be nothing but a funny story. On the basis of deeper reflexions, however, O. Henry hides some messages in it which lead the readers to a better understanding of life and to a more careful considerations of their own plans and projects:
- From Sam's and Bill's perspective, the message is as follows: There is no such thing as easy money in life. Anything that appears to be easy may come with some pitfalls the consequences of which may be unforeseeable.
- From Red Chief's perspective, the message is that for a "real boy", there is no danger, at all. On the contrary, he will get what he wants to and create the world that he thinks is real.
- From Mr. Dorset's perspective, the message is that a child may not turn out to be the loveable person parents can be proud of but rather the very opposite. In this case, it may be better not to have a child, at all, or to give him or her into other people's hands if the opportunity arises.
As for the characters, the following points are of importance:
The two kidnappers Bill and Jim are the actual cowards. Unlike what the readers may expect, they are the ones who are afraid of the whole situation, they are the true victims. Instead of dominating their hostage - who, and this must not be forgotten, is a little boy, not even a teenager nor a young man -, they are in their hostage's hands. They are afraid of not getting the money they need, afraid of Red Chief, afraid of his father. Their only concern is that their plan might not work. They don't really believe in their success, but they are worried about their potential failure. Thus, their attitude is exactly the wrong one: If they believed in their success, they would surely get it. From this perspective, the story represents an inverted lesson in positive thinking. Although both men are anything but courageous, Bill is the most fearful one who actually behaves like a child. For him, the most important thing is not the realization of their plan, but his safest way out of all the trouble.
- Red Chief is a "real" boy, a rascal, who is afraid of nothing and no one. As living at home is so boring for him, he welcomes any chance of escaping from his own world so as to create a new one for himself. This is why he sees the kidnapping as a game, like playing cowboys and Indians. The fact that he may be in danger does not even occur to him. He may not even want to do harm to his kidnappers, he just wants to have fun and to have the say. And he wants to get rid of his home - and of his father. He prefers an adventurous life to the boredom he faces at home. He nearly succeeds in changing his life, but finally has to return home. In this sense, he also represents a kind of victim.
- Mr. Dorset is a victim in two ways, but he is surprisingly smart. He is a victim because he is Red Chief's father which is a huge task for any man. He also is a victim because he is suposed to pay a ransom for his son. But he is extremely smart because he tries to transform this role of his as a "double" victim" into victory by asking the kidnappers to pay him for taking back his son - an action no kidnapper would ever perform. He doesn't know, however, that he is dealing with cowards himself. So his plan, which is the best and safest way for him to get rid of his son, fails in the end. Being forced to take back his son in the end represents the failure of his.
The story, thus, shows us that the world around us is a lot more than what we can see. It may even be the exact opposite of what we perceive. O. Henry, then, has created a plot which, in its messages and implications, has remained topical up to the present day.
Below you will find the original text of the short story and, afterwards, a simplified version which consists of the original text in which some difficult words and sentences have been deleted.
The Ransom of Red Chief
by O. Henry
The kidnappers considered themselves desperate men. After Red Chief had joined them, they realized that they hadn't even known what desperate meant.
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, in Alabama-Bill Driscoll and myself when this kidnapping idea struck us.
There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a crooked town-lotscheme in Western Illinois with. We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel. Philoprogenitoveness, l says we, is strong in semi-rural communities; therefore, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothesto stir up talk about such things. We knew that Summit couldn't get after us with anything stronger than constables and, maybe, some bloodhounds and an article or two in the Weekly Farmers' Budget. So, it looked good.
We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection plate passer and fore closer . The kid was a boy of ten, with freckles, and hair thecolor of the cover of the magazine you buy at the newsstand when you want to catch a train. Bill and me figured that Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of two thousand dollars to a cent. But wait till I tell you.
About two miles from Summit was a little mountain, covered with many cedar trees. On the rear elevation of this mountain was a cave.There we stored provisions.
One evening after sundown, we drove in a buggy past old Dorset's house. The kid was in the street, throwing rocks at a kitten on the opposite fence.
"Hey, little boy!" says Bill, "would you like to have a bag of candyand a nice ride?" The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of brick.
"That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars," says Bill,climbing over the wheel.
That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the buggy and drove away. We took him up to the cave, and I hitched the horse nearby. After dark Idrove the buggy to the little village three miles away, where we had hired it, and walked back to the mountain.
Bill was pasting court plaster over the scratches and bruises on . There was a fire burning behind the big rock at the entrance of the cave, and the boy was watching a pot of boiling coffee, with two buzzard tail-feathers stuck in his red hair. He points a stick at me when I come up, and says:
"Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief,the terror of the plains?"
"He's all right now," says Bill, rolling up his trousers and examining some bruises on his shins. "We're playing Indian. We're making Buffalo Bill's show look like magic-lantern views of Palestine in the town hall. I'm Old Hank, the Trapper, Red Chief's captive, and I'm to be scalped at daybreak. By Geronimo! that kid can kick hard."
Yes, sir, that boy seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself. He immediately christened me Snake-eye, the Spy, and announced that, when his braves returned from the warpath, I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising of the sun.
Then we had supper; and he filled his mouth full of bacon and bread and gravy, and began to talk. He made a during dinner speech something like this:
"I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet 'possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot's aunt's speckled hen's eggs. Are there any real Indians in these woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving make the wind blow? We had five puppies. What makes your nose so red, Hank? My father has lots of money. Are the stars hot? I whipped Ed Walker twice, Saturday. I don't like girls. You don't catch toads unless with a string. Do oxen make any noise? Why are oranges round? Have you got beds to sleep on in this cave? Amos Murray has got six toes. A parrot can talk, but a monkey or a fish can't. How many does ittake to make twelve?"
Every few minutes he would remember that he was a chief, and pick up his stick rifle and tiptoe to the mouth of the cave to look for the scouts of the hated paleface. Now and then he would let out a warwhoop that made Old Hank the Trapper shiver. That boy had Bill terrorized from the start.
"Red Chief," says I to the kid, "would you like to go home?"
"Aw, what for?" says he. "I don't have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won't take me back home again, Snake-eye, will you?"
"Not right away," says I. "We'll stay here in the cave awhile. " "All right!" says he. "That'll be fine. I never had such fun in all my life."
We went to bed about eleven o'clock. We spread down some wide blankets and quilts and put Red Chief between us. We weren't afraid he'd run away. He kept us awake for three hours, jumping up and reaching for his rifle and screeching:
"Hist! pard," in mine and Bill's ears, as the fancied crackle of a twig or the rustle of a leaf revealed to his young imagination the approach of the outlaw band. At last, I fell into a troubled sleep, and dreamed that I kidnapped and chained to a tree by a fierce pirate with red hair.
Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screamsfrom Bill. They weren't yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you'd expect from a manly set of vocal organs-they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when theysee ghosts or caterpillars. It's an awful thing to hear a strong desperate fat man scream in a cave at daybreak.
I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sitting onBill's chest, with one hand twined in Bill's hair. In the other he had the sharp case knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill's scalp, according to the sentence thathad been pronounced upon him the evening before.
I got the knife away from the kid and made him lie down again. But,from that moment, Bill's spirit was broken. He laid down on his side ofthe bed, but he never closed an eye again in sleep as long as that boy was with us. I dozed off for a while, but along toward sunup I remembered that Red Chief had said I was to be burned at the stake at the rising ofthe sun. I wasn't nervous or afraid; but I sat up and lit my pipe andleaned against a rock.
"What you getting up so soon for, Sam?" asked Bill
Me?" says I. "Oh, I got a kind of pain in my shoulder. I thoughtsitting up would rest it."
"You're a liar!" says Bill. "You're afraid. You was to be burned atsunrise, and you was afraid he'd do it. And he would, too, if he could finda match. Ain't it awful, Sam? Do you think anybody will payout money toget a little imp like that back home?"
"Sure," said I. "A rowdy kid like that is just the kind that parentsdote on. Now, you and the Chief get up and cook breakfast, while I go upon the top of this mountain and look around.
"I went up on the peak of the litde mountain and ran my eye over the vicinity. Over toward Summit I expected to see the men of the village, armed with scythes and pitchforks beating the countryside forthe kidnappers. But what I saw was a peaceful landscape dotted with oneman ploughing with a mule. Nobody was dragging the creek; no messengers dashed hither and yon, bringing tidings of no news to the distracted parents. "Perhaps," says I to myself, "it has not yet beendiscovered that the wolves have borne away the tender lambkin from the fold. Heaven help the wolves!" says I, and I went down the mountain to breakfast.
When I got to the cave I found Bill backed up against the side ofit, breathing hard, and the boy threatening to smash him with a rock halfas big as a coconut.
"He put a red-hot boiled potato down my back," explained Bill, "andthen mashed it with his foot; and I boxed his ears. Have you got a gun about you, Sam?
"I took the rock away from the boy and kind of patched up the argument. "I'll fix you," says the kid to Bill. "No man ever yet struck theRed Chief but he got paid for it. You better beware!"
After breakfast the kid takes a piece of leather with stringswrapped around it out of his pocket and goes outside the cave unwindingit."What's he up to now?" says Bill, anxiously.
You don't think he'llrun away, do you, Sam?"
"No fear of it," say I. "He don't seem to be much of a homebody.But we've got to fix up some plan about the ransom. There don't seem to be much excitement around Summit on account of his disappearance; but maybe they haven't realized yet that he's gone. His folks may think he's spending the night with Aunt Jane or one of the neighbors.
Anyhow, he'll be missed today. Tonight we must get a message to his father demanding the two thousand dollars for his return.
"Just then we heard a kind of war-whoop, such as David might haveemitted when he knocked out the champion Goliath. It was a sling thatRed Chief had pulled out of his pocket, and he was whirling it around his head.
I dodged, and heard a heavy thud and a kind of a sigh from Bill. Arock the size of an egg had caught Bill just behind his left ear. Heloosened himself all over and fell in the fire across the frying pan of hotwater for washing the dishes. I dragged him out and poured cold water on his head for half an hour.
By and by, Bill sits up and feels behind his ear and says:"Sam, do you know who my favorite Biblical character is
Take it easy," says I. "You'll come to your senses presently. "
"King Herod," says he. "You won't go away and leave me here alone,will you, Sam?"
I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his freckles rattled.
"If you don't behave," says I, "I'll take you straight home.Now, are you going to be good, or not?"
"I was only funning," says he, sullenly. "I didn't mean to hurt OldHank. But what did he hit me for? I'll behave, Snake-eye, if you won'tsend me home, and if you'll let me play the Black Scout today."
"I don't know the game," says I. "That's for you and Mr. Bill todecide. He's your playmate for the day. I'm going away for a while, onbusiness. Now, you come in and make friends with him and say you aresorry for hurting him, or home you go, at once."
I made him and Bill shake hands, and then I took Bill aside and toldhim I was going to Poplar Grove, a little village three miles from the cave,and find out what I could about how the kidnapping had been regarded in Summit. Also, I thought it best to send a letter to old man Dorset thatday, demanding the ransom and dictating how it should be paid.
"You know, Sam," says Bill, "I've stood by you without batting aneye in earthquakes, fire, and flood-in poker games, dynamite outrages, police raids, train robberies, and cyclones. I never lost my nerve yet tillwe kidnapped that two-legged skyrocket of a kid. He's got me going. Youwon't leave me long with him, will you, Sam?"
"I'll be back some time this afternoon," says I. "You must keep theboy amused and quiet till I return. And now we'll write the letter to old Dorset."
Bill and I got paper and pencil and worked on the letter while RedChief, with a blanket wrapped around him, strutted up and down,guarding the mouth of the cave. Bill begged me tearfully to make The ransom fifteen hundred dollars instead of two thousand. "I ain'tattempting," says he, "to decry the celebrated moral aspect of parental affection, but we're dealing with humans, and it ain't human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat. I'm willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dollars. You cancharge the difference up to me."
So, to relieve Bill, I acceded, and we wrote a letter that ran this way:
DEBENEZER DORSET, ESQ.:
We have your boy concealed in a place far from Summit. It is useless for you or the most skillful detectives to find him. Absolutely, the only terms on which you can have him restored to you arethese: We demand fifteen hundred dollars in large bills for his return; the money to be left at midnight tonight at the same spot and in the same box as your reply. If you agree to these terms, send your answerin writing by a solitary messenger tonight at half-past eight o'clock. After crossing Owl Creek on the road to Poplar Grove, there are three large trees about a hundred yards apart, close to the fence of the wheatfield on the right-hand side. At the bottom of the fence-post, opposite the third tree, will be found a small pasteboard box.
The messenger will place the answer in this box and returnimmediately to Summit.
If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our demand asstated, you will never see your boy again.
If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are final, and if you do not agree to them no further communication will be attempted.
TWO ESPERATE MEN
I addressed this letter to Dorset, and put it in my pocket.As I was about to start, the kid comes up to me and says:
"Aw, Snake-eye, you said I could play the Black Scout while you was gone."
"Play it, of course," says I. "Mr. Bill will play with you. What kind ofa game is it?"
"I'm the Black Scout," says Red Chief, "and I have to ride to thestockade to warn the settlers that the Indians are coming. I'm tired of playing Indian myself. I want to be the Black Scout."
"All right," says I. "It sounds harmless to me. I guess Mr. Bill willhelp you
What am I to do?" asks Bill, looking at the kid suspiciously.
"You are the boss," says Black Scout. "Get down on your hands and knees. How can I ride to the stockade without a boss?"
"You'd better keep him interested," said I, "till we get the scheme going. Loosen up."
Bill gets down on his all fours, and a look comes in his eye like arabbit's when you catch it in a trap.
"How far is it to the stockade, kid?" he asks, in a husky manner of voice.
"Ninety miles," says the Black Scout. "And you have to gallop to getthere on time. Whoa, now!"
The Black Scout jumps on Bill's back and digs his heels in his side.
"For Heaven's sake," says Bill, "Hurry back, Sam, as soon you can. Iwish we hadn't made the ransom more than a thousand. Say, you quit kicking me or I'll get up and warm you good."
I walked over to Poplar Grove and sat around the post office andstore, talking with the chaw-bacons that came in to trade. One old mansays that he hears Summit is all upset on account of Elder Ebenezer Dorset's boy having been lost or stolen. That was all I wanted to know. Ibought some smoking tobacco, referred casually to the price of blackeyed peas, posted my letter and came away. The postmaster said the mailcarrier would come by in an hour to take the mail to Summit.
When I got back to the cave Bill and the boy were not to be found.I explored the vicinity of the cave, and risked a yodel or two, but therewas no response.
So I lighted my pipe and sat down on a mossy bank to await developments.
In about half an hour I heard the bushes rustle, and Bill wobbledout into the little glade in front of the cave. Behind him was the kid,stepping softly like a scout, with a broad grin on his face. Bill stopped, took off his hat, and wiped his face with a red handkerchief. The kid stopped about eight feet behind him.
"Sam," says Bill, "I suppose you'll think I'm a traitor, but I couldn'thelp it. The boy is gone. I sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs inold times," goes on Bill, "that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of 'em ever was tortured as I have been. I tried to be faithful, but there came a limit."
"What's the trouble, Bill?" I asks him.
"I was rode," says Bill, "the ninety miles to the stockade, notbarring an inch. Then, when the settlers was rescued, I was given oats. And then, for an hour I had to try to explain to him why there was nothin' in holes, how a road can run both ways, and what makes the grass green. I tell you, Sam, a human can only stand so much. I takes him bythe neck of his clothes and drags him down the mountain. On the way hekicks my legs black and blue from the knees down; and I've got to havetwo or three bites on my thumb and hand cauterized.
"But he's gone"-continues Bill-"gone home. I showed him the roadto Summit and kicked him about eight feet nearer there at one kick. I'msorry we lose the ransom; but it was either that or Bill Driscoll to the madhouse." Bill is puffing and blowing, but there is a look of peace and growing content on his rose-pink features.
"Bill," says I, "there isn't any heart disease in your family, is there?"
"No," says Bill, "nothing chronic except malaria and accidents.Why?""Then you might turn around," says I, "and have a look behind you."
Bill turns and sees the boy, and loses his complexion and sits downplump on the ground and begins to pluck aimlessly at grass and little sticks. For an hour I was afraid of his mind.
And then I told him that my scheme was to put the whole job throughimmediately and that we would get the ransom and be off with it bymidnight if Old Dorset fell in with our proposition.
I had a scheme for collecting that ransom without danger of beingcaught. The tree under which the answer was to be left-and the moneylater on-was close to the road fence with big, bare fields on all sides. If a gang of constables should be watching for anyone to come for the note, they could see him a long way off crossing the fields or in the road. But no, sirree! At half-past eight I was up in that tree as well hidden as atree toad, waiting for the messenger to arrive.
Exactly on time, a half-grown boy rides up the road on a bicycle,locates the pasteboard box at the foot of the fencepost, slips a folded piece of paper into it, and pedals away again back toward Summit.
I waited an hour and then concluded the thing was square.I slid down the tree, got the note, slipped along the fence till I struckthe woods, and was back at the cave in another half an hour. I openedthe note, got near the lantern, and read it to Bill. It was written with apen in a crabbed hand, and the sum and substance of it was this:
TWO D ESPERA TE
Gentlemen: I received your letter today by post, in regard to the ransomyou ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in yourdemands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I believeyou will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fiftydollars in cash and I agree to take him off your hands. You had bettercome at night, for the neighbors believe he is lost, and I couldn't beresponsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing himback. Very respectfully,
"Great pirates of Penzance," says I; "of all the impudent-" But I glanced at Bill, and hesitated. He had the most appealing look in his eyes I ever saw on the face of a dumb or a talking brute.
"Sam," says he, "what's two hundred and fifty dollars, after all?We've got the money. One more night of this kid will send me to a bed in Bedlam. You ain't going to let the chance go, are you?"
"Tell you the truth, Bill," says I, "this little monster has somewhatgot on my nerves too. We'll take him home, pay the ransom, and make our getaway."
We took him home that night. We got him to go by telling him thathis father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a pair of moccasins forhim, and we were to hunt bears the next day.
It was just twelve o'clock when we knocked at Ebenezer's frontdoor. Just at the moment when I should have been taking the fifteenhundred dollars from the box under the tree, according to the original proposition, Bill was counting out two hundred and fifty dollars into Dorset's hand.
When the kid found out we were going to leave him at home hestarted to howl and fastened himself as tight as a leech to Bill's leg. Hisfather peeled him away gradually, like a porous plaster.
"How long can you hold him?" asks Bill.
"I'm not as strong as I used to be," says old Dorset, "but I think Ican promise you ten minutes."
"Enough," says Bill. "In ten minutes I shall cross the Central,Southern, and Middle Western States, and be heading for the Canadian border."
And, as dark as it was, and as fat as Bill was, and as good a runneras I am, he was a good mile and a half out of Summit before I could catch up with him.
(Please also take note of the ads on the left.)