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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Student Question

How did Johnny frighten Bill Driscoll in "The Ransom of Red Chief," and how did it affect the story?

Quick answer:

Johnny manages to frighten Bill Driscoll from the start by jumping on his chest while he is asleep and trying to scalp him with a sharp knife used for slicing bacon.

Expert Answers

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Bill Driscoll is frightened out of his wits from the start when Johnny, who calls himself Red Chief, jumps on his chest while he is still sleeping, takes his hair in his hand, and tries to truly scalp him with the men's sharp knife, meant for slicing bacon. This was part of a game the two were playing the night before, but Johnny takes it literally, going too far in way that, not surprisingly, terrifies Bill. We find out that

from that moment, Bill’s spirit was broken.

Bill is no longer able to sleep, fearful of what the boy might end up doing to him. Sam is also jolted awake from this incident and afraid to go back to bed, because Red Chief has already declared that Sam is meant to be burned at the stake.

All of this is part of the comic reversal that makes the moral point of this story. The two hapless kidnappers discover that the easy money that they thought would fall into their hands in a sleepy town full of people they misjudged as rubes is not so easy to come by after all. They, essentially, are taken captive by the young Red Chief until finally they pay a ransom to get rid of the troublesome child.

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In "The Ransom of Red Chief," how had "That boy had Bill frightened from the start"? In what way did it affect the course of the story?

The idea to kidnap the young boy and demand ransom seemed brilliant to both Sam and Bill. However, the situation changed when they actually got the boy. They did not anticipate any hardships in getting the money from the boy’s father and pulling off their planned fraudulent scheme in Western Illinois. Sam left Bill and the boy at the hideout, but upon his return, Bill was hurt, and the boy was enjoying the wild. The situation was not going as expected and Bill was terrified of the boy. The boy was responsible for the bruises on Bill’s body after hitting him as they played.

I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sitting on Bill's chest, with one hand twined in Bill's hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill's scalp.

The situation affected Bill’s resolve to get the ransom. He convinced Sam to ask for less in order to return the boy to his parents. The boy’s father offered to take back his son but at a fee. Bill was ready to pay the amount due to what he had gone through at the hands of the boy. Bill’s fear and the boy’s behavior altered the course of the story, and in an ironical twist of events, the ransom was paid by the kidnappers.

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