The Ransom of Red Chief Summary
by O. Henry

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The Ransom of Red Chief Summary

"The Ransom of Red Chief" is a short story by O. Henry about two hapless criminals who try to hold a trouble-making boy for ransom. 

  • Sam and Bill kidnap Johnny Dorset, the son of a wealthy man. 
  • The two men intend to ransom Johnny off but aren't prepared for his rambunctious antics. 
  • After Johnny attempts to scalp Bill while pretending to be the heroic "Red Chief," the two kidnappers devise a plan to return him to his father. In the end, they pay Johnny's parents to get rid of the boy and run away as fast as they can.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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The pattern of “The Ransom of Red Chief” is suggested by the first sentence of the story: “It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you.” The story is essentially ironic; in a series of comic reversals, the expected event is replaced by its opposite. From the name of the town where the story takes place, Summit, which is perfectly flat, to the end of the story, where a fat man outruns the thin narrator, that which the narrator anticipates never does occur.

The “good thing” that Sam and Bill have planned is a kidnapping. Early in the story, they select a quiet, sleepy town, a wealthy man with an only son, and a cave where they can keep their victim. They rent a buggy and approach the small boy with the promise of candy and a buggy ride. At this point, the first reversal occurs. Instead of sweetly climbing into the buggy, Johnny Dorset hits Bill Driscoll with a brick and fights violently when the two men drag him into the buggy. Although Sam and Bill get the boy to their cave hideout, another reversal occurs while Sam is returning the buggy and walking back. During Sam’s absence, the captor and the captive change roles, seemingly only in play but actually in real control of the situation. When Sam returns to the cave, he finds Bill, badly battered, playing the captured trapper to Johnny’s heroic Indian, who calls himself “Red Chief.” Appropriating Sam for his game, Johnny announces that Bill is to be scalped and Sam burned at the stake.

From this time on, Johnny is in power, annoying his captors with chatter and questions,...

(The entire section is 450 words.)