The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry
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How do Bill and Sam finally get rid of Red Chief?

Bill and Sam finally get rid of Red Chief by paying his father to take them off their hands. This is ironic, to say the least, as the two hapless kidnappers had hoped that little Johnny's father would pay them a ransom for returning their son.

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Bill Driscoll and Sam, the narrator, planned to take the child and then ransom him back to his family for two thousand dollars. However, they such a difficult time with the boy, named Johnny Dorset, that Bill begs Sam to reduce the amount they are asking for to fifteen hundred dollars instead. Bill says that he's "willing to take a chance" at the lower amount just to be rid of the little terror.

Sam leaves Bill and Johnny alone for some time, and when he returns, Bill says that "the boy is gone," that he sent Johnny home rather than continue to endure "such supernatural tortures" as the kid subjected him to. Johnny, however, has followed Bill back to their camp instead. When Johnny's father sends a message back to the kidnappers, he asks them to pay him $250 to take Johnny off their hands. Sam and Bill decide that it's worth it and so they take Johnny home that night. Sam says,

We got him to go by telling him that his father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a pair of moccasins for him, and we were going to hunt bears the next day.

In other words, they lie and promise Johnny a grand adventure after they make a quick stop at Johnny's house. The kidnappers knock on the Dorsets' front door and count out their $250. When Johnny realizes that Sam and Bill have tricked him and that they are actually just taking him home to leave him there, Mr. Dorset promises them he can hold Johnny for ten minutes.

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"The Ransom of Red Chief" follows two kidnappers who, in an ironic reversal of fortune, are ultimately terrorized and held captive by their would-be victim, a boy who proves far beyond their ability to control. In kidnapping Johnny, their intention is to ransom him back to his father for a sum of two thousand dollars. Neither expects the trouble that will follow.

This story takes its title from a make-believe game that Johnny forces his kidnappers to participate in, in which Johnny pretends to be a Native American, calling himself Red Chief. Indeed, Johnny himself is enjoying this experience, while his kidnappers are, by contrast, so overwhelmed that they are willing to lower their ransom demands from two thousand to fifteen hundred dollars.

Ultimately, however, the father's response offers another ironic turn. Rather than paying the ransom (as they had expected), Ebenezer Dorset makes a ransom demand of his own, insisting that the kidnappers pay him two hundred fifty dollars for him to retrieve his son. Overwhelmed, and desperate not to spend any more time at Johnny's mercy, they pay the ransom Ebenezer asks for before fleeing the town as quickly as they can. Thus, the story ends with one last irony, as the ransomers are the ones who pay the ransom so they can escape from the boy they had earlier kidnapped.

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Bill and Sam, two serial criminals, believe they've hit upon a surefire money-making scheme. They're going to kidnap Johnny Dorset, the son of a wealthy man, and hold him for a king's ransom.

Unfortunately for them, their best-laid plans go awry. Although they successfully manage to kidnap the boy, he turns out to be such an obstreperous little brat that he drives them out of their minds. Little Johnny plays the part of Red Chief in a game that involves attempting to scalp the hapless Bill. For good measure, he attacks him with a hot potato and a rock.

Things are clearly not going according to plan for our two kidnappers. Driven to distraction by “Red Chief,” they eventually decide to return him home. What Bill and Sam had hoped would be a major payday has turned out to be anything but.

But that's not the half of it. Because when Bill and Sam return little Johnny home, they're shocked to discover that the boy's father will only take him back if they pay him. In an ironic role reversal, it's the kidnappers who end up paying the ransom victim. Bill and Sam duly hand over the princely sum of $250 and run off as fast as they can.

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Red Chief's real name is Johnny Dorset. Bill and Sam kidnapped the young boy from Ebenezer Dorset because they believed that the man would pay the big ransom demand to get his son back. Unfortunately for Bill and Sam, Johnny Dorset is more than a handful. The boy turns the tables on his captors, and Bill and Sam look for just about any opportunity to get rid of the kid.

The two kidnappers write the ransom letter to Mr. Dorset, but instead of paying the ransom, Mr. Dorset offers the kidnappers an alternative proposal. He wants Bill and Sam to pay him $250 dollars to take his own son back. Bill and Sam think that is a great deal. 

"We’ll take him home, pay the ransom and make our get-away."

The two men return Johnny Dorset at midnight, pay Ebenezer the money, and run as fast as they can out of town.

It was just twelve o’clock when we knocked at Ebenezer’s front door. Just at the moment when I should have been abstracting the fifteen hundred 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.

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