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 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, 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 brick.

“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 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 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 home?”

“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 while.”

“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 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.

“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 re­con­noitre.”

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 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.

“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 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 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 is?”

“Take it easy,” says I. “You’ll come to your senses presently.”

“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 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 sus­pi­ciously.

“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 postof­fice 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 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.

“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 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 round 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 is soon as he felt a lit­tle bet­ter.

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 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 im­pu­dent—”

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 Dorset’s hand.

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.


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