The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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How do the criminals change throughout the story "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

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The change in their situation and in the mental attitudes of the criminals is what gives humor to "The Ransom of Red Chief."  The fault of the criminals is that they underestimate the underdogs. From their initial assumption that the town of Summit, Alabama, holds only backward and foolish people, to their midjudgment of the red-haired, freckle-faced boy, the story develops an ironic tone with hilarious comic-reversals. 

When Bill suggests tot he boy, "Would you like to have a bag of candy and a ride?" the boy catches Bill nearly in the eye with a piece of brick.  When the men do capture him, "That boy put up a fight like a welter weight-cinnamon bear." Once captured, however, the boy delights in his captivity, having a playmate in Bill whom he proceeds to torture by kicking and scratching him.  As they sleep in the cave at night, the narrator, Sam, sleeps fitfully, dreaming of being held captive.  He awakens to "indecent, terrigying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars.  It is an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak."  The boy, who has named himself "Red-Chief" sits upon Bill's chest while attempting to scalp him.  From being the victimizer, Bill has become the victim.

Matters worsen for Bill as the narrator leaves to "reconnoiter" the "yeomandry" whom he believes are searching for the boy.  But all is quiet in town. When he returns to Bill, fear again has overtaken the man. He is breathing hard and tells the narrator that "Red-Chief" has placed a hot, boiled potato down his back.  After the boy steps away he is seen whirling a sling; the men must dodge the stones hurled at them. Now they both are victims.

Also, a result of the kidnapping of this boy, the relationship between the men deteriorates.  Bill accuses Sam of being "King Herod."  He begs Sam not to live him alone.  Then, from being the victimizers, the men become the victims.  Their hopes of making money from Mr. Dorset are dashed when they receive a response to their ransom note.  It states "counter-proposal"  to their ransom demand of $1,500.00 that Mr. Dorset will make.  If they will pay $250.00, he will take his son Johnny off their hands.

Outraged, Sam glances at Bill, who has "the most appealing look in his eyes that I ever saw on the face of a dumb or talking brute."  When they return Johnny, Mr. Dorset tells them he can only hold the boy for about ten minutes while they run away.  Although fat and a poorer runner than Sam, Bill, concerned only about himself, makes it "a mile and a half out of Summit" before Sam can catch up.

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