A Story by Mike Keenan


Hi William,

Did you know?

"We become what we think about." - Earl Nightingale  (THOUGHT OF THE DAY)

So I guess that I’m becoming a peanut butter sandwich. You?



On May 21, 1904 the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) formed in Paris.

I wonder why it started in Paris???




Everything changes;

Summer gives way to Winter.

Nothing ever lasts.


Do you like? Do you agree?




WORD OF THE DAY - you know the drill.


Word: shinny


Definition:      (verb) Climb awkwardly, as if by scrambling. Can you write a sentence?

Synonyms:      skin, clamber, scramble, sputter, struggle


I had to shinny up the tree to rescue my stranded cat.

The native had to shinny up the tree to fetch a coconut.


Okay, back to “The Ransom of Red Chief” & let’s see what you learned by going over plot questions.

Who do Bill & Sam select as their intended victim and why?


Sam and Bill select as their victim Johnny Dorset, the ten year old red-haired only child of “prominent citizen” Ebenezer Dorset. Ebenezer is a “collection-plate passer and forecloser” who Sam and Bill believe can easily afford a $2000 ransom. So the men store supplies in a nearby cave two miles from town and, after sundown, they drive a rented buggy past Ebenezer’s house and try to entice Johnny, who is playing outside, into the buggy with an offer of candy.


Their logic seems good at first - taking the only child of a rich and important local citizen. However, the plan immediately goes wrong when Johnny is not the well-mannered upper-class child they anticipated. More of O. Henry’s irony!


William, how does O. Henry show that their plan might not succeed?


Bribing him with candy immediately earns them physical violence, a surprising act of violence from someone who was meant to be their victim. This shows that the locals are unpredictable. Johnny, who is “throwing rocks at a kitten,” (not nice) responds to their offer by hitting Bill in the eye with a piece of brick.


Bill suggests they are in still in control by vowing that the brick will cost Johnny’s father an extra $500 ransom as they wrestle Johnny into the buggy. The boy struggles “like a welter-weight cinnamon bear” but they take him to the cave where Bill is left to watch him while Sam returns the buggy to town and then walks back to the remote cave. The rock throwing is the first sign of trouble.


When Sam returns, what does he discover about Bill and what is Johnny doing??



Bill is nursing scratches and bruises, but the scene is calm with a fire and a pot of coffee. Johnny has “two buzzard tail feathers stuck in his red hair.” Bill explains, “We’re playing Indian,” and that he is Red Chief’s captive, “to be scalped at daybreak.” Sam observes that the boy is happy camping in the cave and playing with Bill. Johnny also names Sam “Snake-eye, the Spy” and tells him he will be broiled at the stake at sunrise. The three eat supper together.


William, how do we know Johnny is not afraid of being kidnapped by these two?



Instead of being afraid, upset, or even sullen, kidnapped Johnny seems to be having a wonderful time. This is another example of the townspeople not behaving as Bill and Sam anticipated. Furthermore, Bill’s patience is on display again here. Johnny clearly injured him, but Bill’s generous explanation is that they are role playing. Not only does this show that incorporating Bill into his fantasy life has given Johnny real power over this man, but it also literally reverses the terms of the kidnapping, foreshadowing further reversals to come. In other words Johnny is in control not his kidnappers. 

Johnny says he’s never camped before, he had a possum, he hates school, and a rat ate his friend’s aunt’s hen’s eggs. He asks if there are real Indians in the woods and whether trees make the wind blow, and he states that his father has “lots of money.” He asks are the stars hot, says he doesn’t like girls, wonders if oxen make noise, why oranges are round, and if there are beds in the cave. He states a parrot can talk, but not a monkey or fish, and asks “how many does it take to make twelve?” From time to time, he goes to the mouth of the cave scanning the woods for imaginary paleface scouts, and making a war whoop that scares Bill. Sam asks if Johnny would like to go home, but Johnny pleads not to be taken back. Sam assures him they will stay in the cave a while, and Johnny says, “That’ll be fine. I never had such fun in all my life.”


So the irony is that these supposedly dangerous criminals and kidnappers have taken on the role of camp counselors or even surrogate parents, which shows the extent to which this kidnapping has gone off the rails. Furthermore, Johnny’s soliloquy is funny and touching, softening Johnny’s previous violence. Clearly, Johnny is simply a young boy who is naïve but curious about the world and is starved for somebody to listen to him. This passage, particularly the moment in which Johnny begs not to go home, hints that his home life is so troubled that he would rather be kidnapped and living in a rustic cave than at home with his rich but cruel father, which intensifies the reader’s sympathy for Johnny’s plight.


What happens after Sam and Bill go to sleep with Johnny between them?


He continues to play his fantasy for hours, jumping up at sounds outside the cave, and trying to rouse his new friends with shouts of “Hist! pard.” Sam has a bad dream where he is kidnapped by a pirate with red hair and, at daybreak, awakes to Bill’s “indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams” as Johnny, playing Red Chief, acts as though he is trying to scalp Bill.


Sam takes the knife from Johnny and makes him lay down, but Bill is shaken and doesn’t sleep. Sam dozes for a while but wakes early, remembering Johnny’s fantasy threat to burn him at the stake. Bill asks why he’s up so early and Sam claims he has a pain in his shoulder, but Bill accuses him of being afraid of the boy, and asks whether anyone would pay money to get “a little imp like that” back. Sam reassures him that parents dote on rowdy kids and tells him to cook breakfast for Johnny while he goes up to the mountain top to observe any activity around them.


Is anyone in town concerned about the missing child?


Sam goes up on the peak of a nearby mountain and sees nothing to indicate that anyone is concerned about a missing child. He expected to see the local population armed with pitchforks, searching for kidnappers, but instead all is peaceful across the landscape. He likens his capture of Johnny to wolves taking a lamb, but doubt creeps into his mind as he thinks, “Heaven help the wolves!” Sam's expectation that he would see peasants with pitchforks looking for Johnny contrasts with the reality: nobody seems to care. (More irony.) This is an indication that Sam does not understand the locals as well as he believes he does, casting doubt on the success of their plan.


What happens when Sam returns to the camp for breakfast?


Johnny is once again threatening Bill with bodily harm, this time with a rock half the size of a coconut. Bill complains that the boy burned him with a red-hot potato and asks sheepishly if Sam has a gun.


After breakfast, what does Johnny do?



After breakfast, Johnny takes a leather slingshot and goes out of the cave. Bill is worried, wondering what he’s up to and if he’s trying to run away. Sam tells Bill not to worry, and says that he’s headed to town that night to deliver the ransom message, having seen little evidence in the surrounding area of any concern for the lost boy. Suddenly, with a war-whoop, Johnny attacks Bill with a large black rock, hurled with a sling like David slaying Goliath. The impact sends Bill sprawling into the campfire, and Sam tends to his friend for half an hour, pouring cold water on his head.


William- who/what is the David & Goliath reference? (Allusion)


Who is Bill’s favourite Bible character?


Bill mentions that his favorite Bible character is King Herod, the King who doubts Jesus and turns him over to the Romans for execution.


Sam grabs Johnny and shakes him, reprimands him, and then threatens to take the boy home if he doesn’t behave. Sam makes Johnny apologize and tasks Bill with being Johnny’s playmate while he goes into a neighboring town, Poplar Cove, to see if anyone has heard of a missing child yet.


What does Bill suggest about the ransom that shows he is weakening?


Bill reminds Sam that he’s stood by him through many hardships and difficult situations, but he urges him to be quick, since he’s concerned about his own safety around Johnny, whom he calls “that two-legged skyrocket of a kid” and “that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat.” Sam agrees to return quickly, and he and Bill work on the ransom letter while Johnny plays Indian Chief, strutting around like he’s the one guarding captives. In tears, Bill convinces Sam to reduce the ransom demand to $1500 from $2000 to increase the likelihood that they will be able to return the troublesome child soon.


What does Sam write to Ebenezer?



Sam writes the letter to Ebenezer asking for $1500 in large bills in exchange for his son. The answer is to be sent by a solitary messenger to a remote location outside town, and Sam details the exact time and location (at the bottom of a fence-post bordering a wheat field opposite the third of three trees past Owl Creek on the road to Poplar Cove). The threat is “you will never see your boy again” and he states the terms are final and, when agreed to, Johnny will be returned within 3 hours. With the letter in his pocket, Sam encounters Johnny, who asks if he and Bill can play the Black Scout game while he’s gone, since he’s tired of being an Indian chief. Sam assures him, “Of course… Mr. Bill will play with you.”


Okay, good job. We will finish up tomorrow & you and I will soon co-write our own story!


© 2022 Mike Keenan

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Added on March 16, 2022
Last Updated on March 16, 2022


Mike Keenan
Mike Keenan

Kanata, Ontario, Canada

A retired English/Phys-Ed-teacher-Librarian, I write primarily poetry, humour and travel, published in many newspapers & magazines. For poetry feedback, please read my 'Poetry Evaluations' and 'Poetry.. more..