Opening the thick volume of O. Henry stories John began to read aloud in a voice highly reminiscent of the Looney Tunes rooster Foghorn Leghorn. “’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’;” (he switched to a Forrest Gump presentation for Bill’s, “during a moment of temporary mental apparition.”) “’but we didn’t find that out till later.’”
The twins twittered in response to his delivery of the first paragraph of The Ransom of Red Chief and John raised an eyebrow to indicate mock confusion at the minor disturbance. He did not verbally respond to their microscopic disruption but instead continued to read.
A few paragraphs later a new intonation was introduced into the reading. “’We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset,’” was begun in the Foghorn voice but “Ebenezer Dorset” was said in a high pitched, nasally voice. “’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.’” Ebenezer’s name being delivered with the high, nasal presentation, caused a slight nasal eruption from Aziz. John again glanced at his young audience but remained mute concerning the minute discourtesy.
The story progressed through sighting the young Dorset throwing rocks at kittens, his pugilistic attempts to thwart Bill and Sam’s kidnaping and their buggy ride to the cave with the boy in tow. In a tone and cadence that would have made a 1950’s writer for “B” Western movies glow with pride John read, “’Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains?’” The boys giggled with pleasure at the absurd stereotypical presentation.
When Red Chief spoke in his everyday persona of kidnap victim Johnny Dorset it was always with a whining, belligerent tone that stretched out operative words to their maximum potential extent. Though Red Chief’s lines were delivered as a mid-twentieth century caricature of a Native American Johnny’s voice was even more over the top in use of pace and tone, thus creating an absurd character. No one could like Johnny and as the story progressed it became obvious that no one did.
Sam and Bill struggled through the trials that their kidnap victim put them through and John presented every tribulation with comic timing. Johnny’s pummeling of the two men, the near scalping of Bill, Sam’s fear of a ten-year-old boy burning him at the stake, the child torturing Bill by smashing a fiery hot potato on his skin, making the man cower in fear lest he be bludgeoned with rocks and other incidents had the twins laughing in their bus seats.
When Sam and Bill came to the realization that no one from the town was out looking for their kidnap victim the horror of their situation began to dawn on them. As Bill, John read the men’s ransom letter:
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.
After reciting the letter, he paused in his reading and made eye-contact with both Aziz and Arsu, mouth agape he turned his head first from one child and then to the other.
John returned to more tales of torture at the duo’s “victim’s” hands. The response they received from Ebenezer Dorset was unlike anything they had expected. It was delivered in the same nasal style that accompanied Ebenezer’s name:
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.
Although at first indignant at Ebenezer’s demands the two men conclude that there is little they can do but concede to returning Johnny to his home along with the $250 anti-ransom payment. John panted out the final line of the story as quickly as he could. “’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,’” after which he slammed the book shut.
The boys broke into huge grins and John heard applause. He was unsurprised to see Tamika clapping for him but some other nearby passengers clapped as well. From behind him came a soprano voice that said, “Damn, John. That was nice!”
Startled and mystified he half stood in his seat and turned around to see who had addressed him by name. It was the thin, blonde adolescent he’d noticed but then forgotten upon boarding the bus who grinned and nodded at him from her seat. “I think I could sit and listen to you read all day,” the youngster added.
To read O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief go to the link below: