Study Guide

The Ransom of Red Chief Summary

By O. Henry

The Ransom of Red Chief Summary

Sam and Bill are two-bit con men who travel the lower territories of the American wilds looking for small money-making schemes that we're guessing end up exploding in their faces. They get it in their head that by kidnapping the son of a small town official they can easily gather a little extra capital needed for a real-estate swindle. The actual kidnapping goes off without a hitch, but these guys have little experience with precocious ten-year-olds. Wacky mayhem ensues.

The kidnapping victim, Johnny, pretends he's a Native American chief and his aggressive make-believe soon has his abductors afraid for their lives. Johnny concocts fabulous tales and basically vents the Native Americans' grievances against the white man at the two nearest white men he can find.

Unfortunately for Bill, Sam completely abandons him to Johnny's merciless imagination. After a few hours alone with Johnny, "Bill's spirit was broken" (26) and Sam is forced to advance his timeframe for the return of the boy. He drafts a ransom note demanding "fifteen hundred dollars in large bills" (53), down from the two thousand they originally wanted. With the kid on the warpath and Bill's mental facilities rapidly deteriorating, he figures it's worth five hundred less just to get rid of the little hellion.

When the ransom demands reach Ebenezer, a counter offer is proposed: Sam and Bill can pay him "two hundred and fifty dollars in cash" (85) or else they can keep the kid. Deciding that their health and safety are in grave danger, they agree to Ebenezer's terms, and drop the kid off under cover of night. They then have ten minutes to run before Johnny is let loose upon them again, and, as dark as it was, and as fat as Bill was, and as good a runner as I am, he was a good mile and a half out of Summit before I could catch up with him" (96). We suppose it's a good thing that they don't have a sheriff or an angry mob after them, but at this point, is there any real difference?