Reading Comprehension - Literature: 'The Ransom of Red Chief'

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A short story by O. Henry first published in the 6th July 1907 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it follows two men who kidnap, and demand a ransom for, a wealthy Alabamian's son. Eventually, the men are driven crazy by the boy's spoiled and hyperactive behaviour, and they end up paying the boy's father to take him back.
1. The Library of America • Story of the Week
Reprinted from The 50 Funniest American Writers* (*According to Andy Borowitz)
(The Library of America, 2011), pages 11–26. © 2011 Literary Classics of the U.S., Inc.
Reprinted from Whirligigs (1910).
O . H E N RY
The Ransom of Red Chief
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were
down South, in Alabama—Bill Driscoll and myself—when
this kidnapping idea struck us. It was, as Bill afterward
expressed it, “during a moment of temporary mental appa-
rition”; but we didn’t find that out till later.
There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake,
and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as
undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever
clustered around a Maypole.
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dol-
lars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull
off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with.
We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel. Philopro-
genitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities;
therefore, and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought
to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send
reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things.
2. 12 o. henry
We knew that Summit couldn’t get after us with anything
stronger than constables and, maybe, some lackadaisical
bloodhounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers’
Budget. So, it looked good.
We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent
citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. The father was respectable
and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-
plate passer and forecloser. The kid was a boy of ten, with
bas-relief freckles, and hair the colour of the cover of the
magazine you buy at the news-stand when you want to catch
a train. Bill and me figured that Ebenezer would melt down
for a ransom of two thousand dollars to a cent. But wait till
I tell you.
About two miles from Summit was a little mountain, cov-
ered with a dense cedar brake. On the rear elevation of this
mountain was a cave. There we stored provisions.
One evening after sundown, we drove in a buggy past old
Dorset’s house. The kid was in the street, throwing rocks at
a kitten on the opposite fence.
“Hey, little boy!” says Bill, “would you like to have a bag
of candy and a nice ride?”
The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of
“That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars,”
says Bill, climbing over the wheel.
That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon
bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the
buggy and drove away. We took him up to the cave, and I
3. The Ransom of Red Chief 13
hitched the horse in the cedar brake. After dark I drove the
buggy to the little village, three miles away, where we had
hired it, and walked back to the mountain.
Bill was pasting court-plaster over the scratches and
bruises on his features. There was a fire burning behind the
big rock at the entrance of the cave, and the boy was watch-
ing a pot of boiling coffee, with two buzzard tail-feathers
stuck in his red hair. He points a stick at me when I come
up, and says:
“Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of
Red Chief, the terror of the plains?”
“He’s all right now,” says Bill, rolling up his trousers and
examining some bruises on his shins. “We’re playing Indian.
We’re making Buffalo Bill’s show look like magic-lantern
views of Palestine in the town hall. I’m Old Hank, the Trap-
per, Red Chief’s captive, and I’m to be scalped at daybreak.
By Geronimo! that kid can kick hard.”
Yes, sir, that boy seemed to be having the time of his life.
The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he
was a captive himself. He immediately christened me Snake-
eye, the Spy, and announced that, when his braves returned
from the warpath, I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising
of the sun.
Then we had supper; and he filled his mouth full of bacon
and bread and gravy, and began to talk. He made a during-
dinner speech something like this:
“I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a
pet ’possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to
4. 14 o. henry
go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot’s aunt’s
speckled hen’s eggs. Are there any real Indians in these
woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving
make the wind blow? We had five puppies. What makes your
nose so red, Hank? My father has lots of money. Are the stars
hot? I whipped Ed Walker twice, Saturday. I don’t like girls.
You dassent catch toads unless with a string. Do oxen make
any noise? Why are oranges round? Have you got beds to
sleep on in this cave? Amos Murray has got six toes. A parrot
can talk, but a monkey or a fish can’t. How many does it take
to make twelve?”
Every few minutes he would remember that he was a
pesky redskin, and pick up his stick rifle and tiptoe to the
mouth of the cave to rubber for the scouts of the hated pale-
face. Now and then he would let out a war-whoop that made
Old Hank the Trapper, shiver. That boy had Bill terrorized
from the start.
“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go
“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home.
I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me
back home again, Snake-eye, will you?”
“Not right away,” says I. “We’ll stay here in the cave a
“All right!” says he. “That’ll be fine. I never had such fun
in all my life.”
We went to bed about eleven o’clock. We spread down
some wide blankets and quilts and put Red Chief between us.
5. The Ransom of Red Chief 15
We weren’t afraid he’d run away. He kept us awake for three
hours, jumping up and reaching for his rifle and screeching:
“Hist! pard,” in mine and Bill’s ears, as the fancied crackle of
a twig or the rustle of a leaf revealed to his young imagination
the stealthy approach of the outlaw band. At last, I fell into a
troubled sleep, and dreamed that I had been kidnapped and
chained to a tree by a ferocious pirate with red hair.
Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful
screams from Bill. They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or
whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of
vocal organs—they were simply indecent, terrifying, humili-
ating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or
caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat
man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.
I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sit-
ting 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, according to the sentence that had been pronounced
upon him the evening before.
I got the knife away from the kid and made him lie down
again. But, from that moment, Bill’s spirit was broken. He
laid down on his side of the bed, but he never closed an eye
again in sleep as long as that boy was with us. I dozed off for
a while, but along toward sun-up I remembered that Red
Chief had said I was to be burned at the stake at the rising
of the sun. I wasn’t nervous or afraid; but I sat up and lit my
pipe and leaned against a rock.
6. 16 o. henry
“What you getting up so soon for, Sam?” asked Bill.
“Me?” says I. “Oh, I got a kind of a pain in my shoulder.
I thought sitting up would rest it.”
“You’re a liar!” says Bill. “You’re afraid. You was to be
burned at sunrise, and you was afraid he’d do it. And he
would, too, if he could find a match. Ain’t it awful, Sam? Do
you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like
that back home?”
“Sure,” said I. “A rowdy kid like that is just the kind that
parents dote on. Now, you and the Chief get up and cook
breakfast, while I go up on the top of this mountain and
I went up on the peak of the little mountain and ran my
eye over the contiguous vicinity. Over toward Summit I
expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with
scythes and pitchforks beating the countryside for the das-
tardly kidnappers. But what I saw was a peaceful landscape
dotted with one man ploughing with a dun mule. Nobody
was dragging the creek; no couriers dashed hither and yon,
bringing tidings of no news to the distracted parents. There
was a sylvan attitude of somnolent sleepiness pervading that
section of the external outward surface of Alabama that lay
exposed to my view. “Perhaps,” says I to myself, “it has not
yet been discovered that the wolves have borne away the
tender lambkin from the fold. Heaven help the wolves!” says
I, and I went down the mountain to breakfast.
When I got to the cave I found Bill backed up against the
side of it, breathing hard, and the boy threatening to smash
him with a rock half as big as a cocoanut.
7. The Ransom of Red Chief 17
“He put a red-hot boiled potato down my back,”
explained Bill, “and then mashed it with his foot; and I boxed
his ears. Have you got a gun about you, Sam?”
I took the rock away from the boy and kind of patched
up the argument. “I’ll fix you,” says the kid to Bill. “No man
ever yet struck the Red Chief but what he got paid for it. You
better beware!”
After breakfast the kid takes a piece of leather with strings
wrapped around it out of his pocket and goes outside the
cave unwinding it.
“What’s he up to now?” says Bill, anxiously. “You don’t
think he’ll run away, do you, Sam?”
“No fear of it,” says I. “He don’t seem to be much of a
home body. But we’ve got to fix up some plan about the ran-
som. There don’t seem to be much excitement around Sum-
mit on account of his disappearance; but maybe they haven’t
realized yet that he’s gone. His folks may think he’s spending
the night with Aunt Jane or one of the neighbours. Anyhow,
he’ll be missed to-day. To-night we must get a message to his
father demanding the two thousand dollars for his return.”
Just then we heard a kind of war-whoop, such as David
might have emitted when he knocked out the champion
Goliath. It was a sling that Red Chief had pulled out of his
pocket, and he was whirling it around his head.
I dodged, and heard a heavy thud and a kind of a sigh from
Bill, like a horse gives out when you take his saddle off. A
niggerhead rock the size of an egg had caught Bill just behind
his left ear. He loosened himself all over and fell in the fire
across the frying pan of hot water for washing the dishes. I
8. 18 o. henry
dragged him out and poured cold water on his head for half
an hour.
By and by, Bill sits up and feels behind his ear and says:
“Sam, do you know who my favourite Biblical character
“Take it easy,” says I. “You’ll come to your senses
“King Herod,” says he. “You won’t go away and leave me
here alone, will you, Sam?”
I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his
freckles rattled.
“If you don’t behave,” says I, “I’ll take you straight home.
Now, are you going to be good, or not?”
“I was only funning,” says he sullenly. “I didn’t mean
to hurt Old Hank. But what did he hit me for? I’ll behave,
Snake-eye, if you won’t send me home, and if you’ll let me
play the Black Scout to-day.”
“I don’t know the game,” says I. “That’s for you and Mr.
Bill to decide. He’s your playmate for the day. I’m going
away for a while, on business. Now, you come in and make
friends with him and say you are sorry for hurting him, or
home you go, at once.”
I made him and Bill shake hands, and then I took Bill aside
and told him I was going to Poplar Cove, a little village three
miles from the cave, and find out what I could about how the
kidnapping had been regarded in Summit. Also, I thought it
best to send a peremptory letter to old man Dorset that day,
demanding the ransom and dictating how it should be paid.
“You know, Sam,” says Bill, “I’ve stood by you without
9. The Ransom of Red Chief 19
batting an eye in earthquakes, fire and flood—in poker
games, dynamite outrages, police raids, train robberies and
cyclones. I never lost my nerve yet till we kidnapped that
two-legged skyrocket of a kid. He’s got me going. You won’t
leave me long with him, will you, Sam?”
“I’ll be back some time this afternoon,” says I. “You must
keep the boy amused and quiet till I return. And now we’ll
write the letter to old Dorset.”
Bill and I got paper and pencil and worked on the letter
while Red Chief, with a blanket wrapped around him, strutted
up and down, guarding the mouth of the cave. Bill begged me
tearfully to make the ransom fifteen hundred dollars instead
of two thousand. “I ain’t attempting,” says he, “to decry the
celebrated moral aspect of parental affection, but we’re deal-
ing with humans, and it ain’t human for anybody to give up
two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled
wildcat. I’m willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dol-
lars. You can charge the difference up to me.”
So, to relieve Bill, I acceded, and we collaborated a letter
that ran this way:
Ebenezer Dorset, Esq.:
We have your boy concealed in a place far from Sum-
mit. It is useless for you or the most skilful detectives to
attempt to find him. Absolutely, the only terms on which
you can have him restored to you are these: We demand
fifteen hundred dollars in large bills for his return; the
money to be left at midnight to-night at the same spot and
in the same box as your reply—as hereinafter described.
If you agree to these terms, send your answer in writing
10. 20 o. henry
by a solitary messenger to-night at half-past eight o’clock.
After crossing Owl Creek, on the road to Poplar Cove,
there are three large trees about a hundred yards apart,
close to the fence of the wheat field on the right-hand side.
At the bottom of the fence-post, opposite the third tree,
will be found a small pasteboard box.
The messenger will place the answer in this box and
return immediately to Summit.
If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our
demand as stated, you will never see your boy again.
If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned
to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are
final, and if you do not accede to them no further com-
munication will be attempted.
Two Desperate Men.
I addressed this letter to Dorset, and put it in my pocket.
As I was about to start, the kid comes up to me and says:
“Aw, Snake-eye, you said I could play the Black Scout
while you was gone.”
“Play it, of course,” says I. “Mr. Bill will play with you.
What kind of a game is it?”
“I’m the Black Scout,” says Red Chief, “and I have to
ride to the stockade to warn the settlers that the Indians are
coming. I’m tired of playing Indian myself. I want to be the
Black Scout.”
“All right,” says I. “It sounds harmless to me. I guess Mr.
Bill will help you foil the pesky savages.”
“What am I to do?” asks Bill, looking at the kid suspi-
11. The Ransom of Red Chief 21
“You are the hoss,” says Black Scout. “Get down on your
hands and knees. How can I ride to the stockade without a
“You’d better keep him interested,” said I, “till we get the
scheme going. Loosen up.”
Bill gets down on his all fours, and a look comes in his eye
like a rabbit’s when you catch it in a trap.
“How far is it to the stockade, kid?” he asks, in a husky
manner of voice.
“Ninety miles,” says the Black Scout. “And you have to
hump yourself to get there on time. Whoa, now!”
The Black Scout jumps on Bill’s back and digs his heels
in his side.
“For Heaven’s sake,” says Bill, “hurry back, Sam, as soon
as you can. I wish we hadn’t made the ransom more than a
thousand. Say, you quit kicking me or I’ll get up and warm
you good.”
I walked over to Poplar Cove and sat around the post-
office and store, talking with the chawbacons that came in
to trade. One whiskerando says that he hears Summit is all
upset on account of Elder Ebenezer Dorset’s boy having
been lost or stolen. That was all I wanted to know. I bought
some smoking tobacco, referred casually to the price of
black-eyed peas, posted my letter surreptitiously and came
away. The postmaster said the mail-carrier would come by
in an hour to take the mail on to Summit.
When I got back to the cave Bill and the boy were not to
be found. I explored the vicinity of the cave, and risked a
yodel or two, but there was no response.
12. 22 o. henry
So I lighted my pipe and sat down on a mossy bank to
await developments.
In about half an hour I heard the bushes rustle, and Bill
wabbled out into the little glade in front of the cave. Behind
him was the kid, stepping softly like a scout, with a broad
grin on his face. Bill stopped, took off his hat and wiped his
face with a red handkerchief. The kid stopped about eight
feet behind him.
“Sam,” says Bill, “I suppose you’ll think I’m a renegade,
but I couldn’t help it. I’m a grown person with masculine
proclivities and habits of self-defense, but there is a time
when all systems of egotism and predominance fail. The boy
is gone. I have sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs
in old times,” goes on Bill, “that suffered death rather than
give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of ’em ever
was subjugated to such supernatural tortures as I have been.
I tried to be faithful to our articles of depredation; but there
came a limit.”
“What’s the trouble, Bill?” I asks him.
“I was rode,” says Bill, “the ninety miles to the stockade,
not barring an inch. Then, when the settlers was rescued, I
was given oats. Sand ain’t a palatable substitute. And then,
for an hour I had to try to explain to him why there was
nothin’ in holes, how a road can run both ways and what
makes the grass green. I tell you, Sam, a human can only
stand so much. I takes him by the neck of his clothes and
drags him down the mountain. On the way he kicks my legs
black-and-blue from the knees down; and I’ve got to have
two or three bites on my thumb and hand cauterized.
13. The Ransom of Red Chief 23
“But he’s gone”—continues Bill—“gone home. I showed
him the road to Summit and kicked him about eight feet
nearer there at one kick. I’m sorry we lose the ransom; but it
was either that or Bill Driscoll to the madhouse.”
Bill is puffing and blowing, but there is a look of ineffable
peace and growing content on his rose-pink features.
“Bill,” says I, “there isn’t any heart disease in your family,
is there?”
“No,” says Bill, “nothing chronic except malaria and acci-
dents. Why?”
“Then you might turn around,” says I, “and have a look
behind you.”
Bill turns and sees the boy, and loses his complexion and
sits down plump on the ground and begins to pluck aimlessly
at grass and little sticks. For an hour I was afraid for his mind.
And then I told him that my scheme was to put the whole
job through immediately and that we would get the ransom
and be off with it by midnight if old Dorset fell in with our
proposition. So Bill braced up enough to give the kid a weak
sort of a smile and a promise to play the Russian in a Japanese
war with him as soon as he felt a little better.
I had a scheme for collecting that ransom without dan-
ger of being caught by counterplots that ought to commend
itself to professional kidnappers. The tree under which the
answer was to be left—and the money later on—was close
to the road fence with big, bare fields on all sides. If a gang of
constables should be watching for any one to come for the
note they could see him a long way off crossing the fields or
in the road. But no, sirree! At half-past eight I was up in that
14. 24 o. henry
tree as well hidden as a tree toad, waiting for the messenger
to arrive.
Exactly on time, a half-grown boy rides up the road on a
bicycle, locates the pasteboard box at the foot of the fence-
post, slips a folded piece of paper into it and pedals away
again back toward Summit.
I waited an hour and then concluded the thing was square.
I slid down the tree, got the note, slipped along the fence till
I struck the woods, and was back at the cave in another half
an hour. I opened the note, got near the lantern and read it
to Bill. It was written with a pen in a crabbed hand, and the
sum and substance of it was this:
Two Desperate Men.
Gentlemen: I received your letter to-day by post, in
regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I
think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby
make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to
believe you will accept. 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.
Very respectfully,
Ebenezer Dorset.
“Great pirates of Penzance!” says I; “of all the impu-
But I glanced at Bill, and hesitated. He had the most
15. The Ransom of Red Chief 25
appealing look in his eyes I ever saw on the face of a dumb
or a talking brute.
“Sam,” says he, “what’s two hundred and fifty dollars,
after all? We’ve got the money. One more night of this kid
will send me to a bed in Bedlam. Besides being a thorough
gentleman, I think Mr. Dorset is a spendthrift for making us
such a liberal offer. You ain’t going to let the chance go, are
“Tell you the truth, Bill,” says I, “this little he ewe lamb
has somewhat got on my nerves too. We’ll take him home,
pay the ransom and make our get-away.”
We took him home that night. We got him to go by telling
him that his father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a
pair of moccasins for him, and we were going to hunt bears
the next day.
It was just twelve o’clock when we knocked at Ebenezer’s
front door. Just at the moment when I should have been
abstracting the fifteen hundred dollars from the box under
the tree, according to the original proposition, Bill was
counting out two hundred and fifty dollars into Dorset’s
When the kid found out we were going to leave him at
home he started up a howl like a calliope and fastened himself
as tight as a leech to Bill’s leg. His father peeled him away
gradually, like a porous plaster.
“How long can you hold him?” asks Bill.
“I’m not as strong as I used to be,” says old Dorset, “but
I think I can promise you ten minutes.”
16. 26 o. henry
“Enough,” says Bill. “In ten minutes I shall cross the
Central, Southern and Middle Western States, and be legging
it trippingly for the Canadian border.”
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.