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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Ebenezer Dorset's awareness of Johnny troubling the kidnappers

Summary:

Ebenezer Dorset's awareness of Johnny troubling the kidnappers is evident when he receives the ransom note and responds by demanding that the kidnappers pay him to take Johnny back. This indicates that he knows Johnny is a handful and assumes the kidnappers are desperate to be rid of him.

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What does Ebenezer Dorset's letter reveal about Johnny in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

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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How does Ebenezer Dorset know Johnny is troubling the kidnappers in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Johnny's father Ebenezer knows his son Red Chief must be giving the kidnappers a bad time because he knows the boy is a hellion. Ebeneezer shows this in his reply to the ransom note, in which he writes:

You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night because the neighbors believe he is lost. And, I could not be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back.

When the two kidnappers return the boy to his father that night, Bill asks how long Ebenezer thinks he can hold his son while they make their getaway.

"I'm not as strong as I used to be," says old Dorset, "but I think I can promise you ten minutes."

Ebenezer Dorset seems to feel some compassion for Bill and Sam because he knows what they must have been going through. He has been having the same problems with Red Chief for years. As a result, he has become a patient, philosophical man, as one might expect when meeting the parent of a boy like Johnny, who is always causing trouble and who never seems to run out of energy. Ebenezer shows no ill will towards the two kidnappers. It seems he believes they received the punishment they deserved.

It is unclear why Ebenezer thinks he is entitled to collect $250 for taking his own son off the kidnappers' hands. Evidently, it is a question of the son's value. Bill and Sam estimate that the boy is worth $1500 to the father, but the father's insistence on receiving $250 implies he does not value his son and instead sees him as a burden. Ebenezer knew the kidnappers have no way of getting rid of Red Chief unless he agreed to take him back.

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