The Ransom of Red Chief
by O. Henry
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 apparition"; 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
dollars, 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. Philoprogenitiveness, 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.
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 color
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,
covered 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 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 watching 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
"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
Trapper, 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 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
paleface. 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
"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. 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, humiliating 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
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, according
to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the
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
"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
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 dastardly 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
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.
"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 ransom. There don't seem to be much excitement
around Summit 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 neighbors. 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
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 favorite Biblical
"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
"You know, Sam," says Bill, "I've stood by you without
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 dealing
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 dollars. 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
Summit. 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 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 communication 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
"You are the hoss," says Black Scout. "Get down on
your hands and knees. How can I ride to the stockade
without a hoss?"
"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.
So I lighted my pipe and sat down on a mossy bank to
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
"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
"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
Bill is puffing and blowing, but there is a look of
ineffable peace and growing content on his rose-pink
"Bill," says I, "there isn't any heart disease in
your family, is there?
"No," says Bill, "nothing chronic except malaria
and accidents. Why?"
"Then you might turn around," says I, "and have a
took 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
I had a scheme for collecting that ransom without
danger 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 tree as well
hidden as a tree toad, waiting for the messenger
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
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
neighbors believe he is lost, and I couldn't be
responsible for what they would do to anybody they
saw bringing him back.
"Great pirates of Penzance!" says I; "of all the
But I glanced at Bill, and hesitated. He had the most
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 you?"
"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
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."
"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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~