American Literature

The Plot Summary of o Henrys the Ransom of Red Chief



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"The Ransom of Red Chief" is a short story written by American writer William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.  Like many of O. Henry's works, the story is notable for its plays on words, humor, and plot twist.  Written around the turn of the 20th century, the story is a short rendition of what you might get if you crossed "Home Alone" with "O Brother Where Art Thou?"  It makes for a diverting 5-10 minutes that will bring at least one smile to your face while reading and perhaps a couple chuckles.

The story takes place in rural Alabama.  Two crooks, Bill Driscoll and Sam (we never learn his last name) have about $600 between the two of them and figure they need another $2000 to pull off a "fraudulent town-lot scheme."  And by the way, you learn in the first paragraph of the story that these two fellows are the self-educated type who think that using big words makes them smart.  They have it all figured out.  Except for the fact that the words they use are wrong or made up, accounting for the humor of the undereducated ne'er-do-well who thinks he has a plan.

So Bill and Sam decide that in order to get their money, they'll kidnap a child from a prominent member of a small town and thus select little Johnny Dorset, a boy of nine and the only child of Ebenezer Dorset, a "mortgage fancier."  The trouble starts from the get-go when they call out to Johnny to tempt him to the car.  Johnny throws a piece of brick and hits Bill in the eye.  The two get out of the car and grab Johnny, who puts up a struggle before they get him in the car and drive out to a cave in the hills.  Sam goes to return the car, and when he returns he finds Johnny has become Red Chief - and Bill has bruises on his legs.

Life over the next day doesn't get any better for Bill as little Johnny, who hates school, doesn't like girls, and is generally a little terror, finds the idea of camping out to be great fun and indulges his sadistic imagination on his captors, nearly scalping Bill the next morning, shoving a red hot potato down his shirt and smashing it with his foot, and riding Bill like a horse.  It's enough to make Bill announce that his favorite Biblical character is King Herod (who had all the young boys put to death around the time of the birth of Jesus).  And even Sam threatens the boy with taking him back home if he doesn't behave.

Sam and Bill then draw up their ransom letter and have it delivered to Ebenezer Dorset demanding $1500 (Bill insists that no one will pay $2000 to have Johnny returned).  Mr. Dorset responds with a letter of his own telling "Two Desperate Men" that for $250 he will accept Johnny back, but that they better do it at night as the neighbors believe Johnny is gone for good and he can't be held responsible for how they'll act if they see him being returned.

Bill begs, and Sam relents.  So that night, they take Johnny home.  Johnny grabs Bill's leg, holding on for dear life so he isn't returned home.  Johnny's dad pries him off.  Bill asks how long he can hold Johnny, to which Ebenezer replies he's not as strong as he used to be, so maybe ten minutes, to which Bill replies that by then he should be close to Canada, and takes off running.

To be best appreciated, the story should be read.  It can be found online in a number of places (the copyright has expired in the United States), and enjoyed in a few minutes.  It crosses the line between reality and fancy, but it's easy enough to suspend any notion of disbelief long enough to enjoy the story.  If you have 5-10 minutes to spare for a fun story, give this a shot.  And then you can read some of O. Henry's other stories, many of which are also funny and have the twisted plot endings that have become common in today's humor.

More about this author: Steve Gregory

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