The pattern of “The Ransom of Red Chief” is suggested by the first sentence of the story: “It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you.” The story is essentially ironic; in a series of comic reversals, the expected event is replaced by its opposite. From the name of the town where the story takes place, Summit, which is perfectly flat, to the end of the story, where a fat man outruns the thin narrator, that which the narrator anticipates never does occur.
The “good thing” that Sam and Bill have planned is a kidnapping. Early in the story, they select a quiet, sleepy town, a wealthy man with an only son, and a cave where they can keep their victim. They rent a buggy and approach the small boy with the promise of candy and a buggy ride. At this point, the first reversal occurs. Instead of sweetly climbing into the buggy, Johnny Dorset hits Bill Driscoll with a brick and fights violently when the two men drag him into the buggy. Although Sam and Bill get the boy to their cave hideout, another reversal occurs while Sam is returning the buggy and walking back. During Sam’s absence, the captor and the captive change roles, seemingly only in play but actually in real control of the situation. When Sam returns to the cave, he finds Bill, badly battered, playing the captured trapper to Johnny’s heroic Indian, who calls himself “Red Chief.” Appropriating Sam for his game, Johnny announces that Bill is to be scalped and Sam burned at the stake.
From this time on, Johnny is in power, annoying his captors with chatter and questions, keeping them from sleeping, terrifying Bill with an attempted scalping at daybreak—followed by an attack with a hot potato and later with a rock—and generally enjoying himself so much that he seems disinclined to return home. Finally, Sam mails the ransom note, but the reply makes it clear that Ebenezer Dorset recognizes his son’s power. The father demands a ransom of $250 from the kidnappers, in return for which he will take Johnny back. Bill, who has already tried to send Johnny home, begs his confederate to agree, and Sam himself is now willing to pay to get rid of the child whom the con men had abducted. Johnny, however, does not wish to leave his captors. They must scheme to get him back to his father as once they had schemed to get him away from home, and finally, they must run at top speed to escape the boy who does not wish to lose his new playmates, the would-be kidnappers who have become his victims.