O. Henry's story deliberately contradicts the common assumption that all children are little angels and are treasured by their parents. He shows how Sam and Bill overestimate the value of one particular little boy.
Bill and me figured that Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of two thousand dollars to a cent.
By the time they are ready to send their ransom note to Red Chief's father they have had plenty of exposure to their vicim and are ready to settle for less.
Bill begged me tearfully to make the ransom fifteen hundred dollars instead of two thousand.
When they finally receive an answer from the boy's father, it reads in part:
You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands.
So the two kidnappers have drastically overvalued their captive, whom they now must pay to return.
Johnny (aka Red Chief) is only a symbol of children and childhood. One of O. Henry's themes in this story is that not all kids are little angels and that parenthood is not always a joy. Red Chief's father has a realistic view of his son. He knows the boy is a selfish, mean little devil. The great comedian W. C. Fields was noted for saying, "Anyone who hates kids can't be all bad."
Bill and Sam have an unrealistic view of the value of children to their parents because both of these men have never had children and know nothing about parenthood. This story is more about the trials and tribulations of raising kids than it is about the "busted caper" of a couple of stooges.
To use the French term, Ebenezer Dorset's son is an enfant terrible; that is, Red Chief is what Bill calls "a forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat." He is an uncontrollable boy, whose objective at all times is to terrorize any one who tries to keep him from doing what it is that he wants to do.
O. Henry's humorously ironic story presents two bumbling kidnappers who take the richest man in Summit's son and hope to obtain a sizable ransom for the return of the child. But, this red-headed boy is such a "wildcat" that he reverses the outcome on the men as they pay the father to take the boy back after Mr. Dorset has made no attempt to contact them. During the time that Bill has been given the dubious position of overseeing the boy, Bill suffers terribly:
- has been hit in the eye with a piece of brick when they first make the kidnapping;
- he is scratched and bruised his face;
- he is kicked in the shins;
- he is so terrorized with Red Chief's running wildly and "whooping" and leaping on him that he cannot sleep and jumps up every three hours, reaching for his rifle;
- he is subjected to Red Chief's attempt to scalp him with a large knife;
- he is frightened by Red Chief who threatens to burn Sam
- he is hit by a good-sized rock shot from Red Chief's slingshot
- he is ridden like a horse for hours, made to eat sand;
When Sam returns after Bill is ridden like a horse, he tells Sam,
....for an hour I had to try to explain to him why there was nothin' in holes, how a road can run both ways and what makes the grass green. I tell you, Sam, a human can only stand so much. I takes him by the neck of his clothes and drags him down the mountain. On the way he kicks my legs black-and-blue from the knees down; and I've got two or three bites on my thumb and hand cauterized.