"The Ransom of Red Chief" is the story of Sam and Bill and their attempt to raise "two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois." The story is told by Sam, whose sarcasm shines through his description of the town of Summit ("as flat as a flannel-cake") and in all other descriptive aspects of his narrative.
Their plot involves kidnapping the ten-year-old only son of a rich widower and holding the lad for ransom. The plan is quickly derailed, however, by the enthusiastic and overwhelming energy with which their victim seizes the opportunity to enjoy every moment of this high adventure. Sam and Bill quickly discover that they are no match for the imagination of their captive, who turns the tables on them in short order.
In the end, the boy's father agrees to take Johnny back if the bandits meet his terms, which are not what Sam and Bill originally had in mind. "You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands." Bill, who suffers the worst of the damage inflicted while supervising Johnny/Red Chief/the Black Scout, begs Sam to agree to the offer, and they make their escape from Johnny as quickly as possible.