The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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What does Ebenezer Dorset's letter to the kidnappers tell us about the boy Johnny in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

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The two con men of O. Henry's ironic story of comic reversals, Sam and his partner Bill Driscoll, at first assess Ebenezer Dorset as a wealthy financier who probably dotes on his progeny and will be willing to pay a high ransom for the boy.  However, when Sam and Bill read his letter, it proves a hilarious reversal of their assumptions.

For, instead of agreeing to meet the demands of the kidnappers, Dorset, in "a crabbed hand" writes that he has a counter-proposal about which he is convinced the men will agree. Instead of his paying two thousand dollars, which he believes to be exorbitant, Dorset wants the men to return the boy and pay him two hundred and fifty dollars.  In addition, he suggests that they return the boy during the night lest the neighbors, who think Johnny is lost, punish anyone for bringing the boy back to his house:

You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbours believe he is lost, and I couldn't be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back.

It becomes apparent, therefore, that Johnny is a terror in his own neighborhood and his absence is celebrated rather than mourned.  Added to this, Mr. Dorset is not in the least worried about Johnny, knowing that anyone who kidnaps him will soon be elated to be free of the boy.

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