Sam and Bill are a couple of con artists. Their problem and motivation is that they need money. They are always in need of money because they are obviously not very competent con artists.
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with.
They decide to try kidnapping a child, something with which these two crooks have never had any previous experience. The problem escalates because the child they choose to kidnap turns out to be more than they can handle. The boy thinks of himself as a wild Indian named Red Chief. He is violent and dangerous. They are afraid to go to sleep at night. They try to solve this unexpected problem without letting go of the entire ransom they expected to receive.
Bill begged me tearfully to make the ransom fifteen hundred dollars instead of two thousand.
The boy's father Ebenezer Dorset is not the least bit anxious to get his son back. He knows the boy too well, and he evidently feels sure the kidnappers will be willing to get Red Chief off their hands on any terms. He finally replies to the ransom letter as follows:
Gentlemen: I received your letter to-day by post, in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands.
The kidnappers' problems are finally resolved when they end up paying the boy's father the two hundred and fifty dollars to get rid of their hostage. Although kidnapping a child is a serious crime, O. Henry makes the whole episode funny and at the same time illustrates the moral that "Crime does not pay." O. Henry served several years in prison for embezzlement and met many men like Bill and Sam who thought they were clever tricksters but ended up behind bars. O. Henry wrote under a pen name because he was hiding from his past. He sincerely believed that honesty was really the best policy. In another story, "A Retrieved Reformation," he has his protagonist Jimmy Valentine, a one-time legendary safecracker, write to a friend as follows:
Say, Billy, I've quit the old business—a year ago. I've got a nice store. I'm making an honest living, and I'm going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It's the only life, Billy—the straight one. I wouldn't touch a dollar of another man's money now for a million.