Bill and Sam arrive in small town Summit, Alabama, determined to take advantage of the backwards country folk and make fast money by kidnapping Johnny, the child of a wealthy local businessman. However, their lack of knowledge of or respect for local power structures and people complicates and derails these outsiders’ elaborate plans. By underestimating Ebenezer Dorset (who outwits them) and his son (whose antics torment them), their ransom plan falls apart and they instead have to pay Ebenezer to take his son back, marking their defeat by the town and its inhabitants. They leave town tamed and compliant, chastened if not transformed by their encounter, having learned that the town’s norms and social power apply to everyone who would do business there, locals and strangers alike.
The kidnapping fails because Sam and Bill, as outsiders, do not understand or respect the people of Summit. Sam is sure that the people of Summit are weak, which makes it an ideal place for the kidnapping. They “couldn't get after us with anything stronger than constables,” he says, or maybe “a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers' Budget” newspaper. He calls the locals “undeleterious,” “self-satisfied,” and “peasantry,” none of which are intended as terms of respect. With this attitude, they develop their plan based on the assumption that Ebenezer Dorset, a prominent citizen in town, would put up little resistance and “melt down” for $2000 ransom. However, Ebenezer is clever and seems impervious to their threats.
Just as they underestimate Ebenezer, Sam and Bill underestimate the challenges of managing Johnny, who is violent towards them. This quickly erodes their morale, undermining their plan. Despite Johnny’s antics, the plan might have worked if Ebenezer and the locals had been as panicked by Johnny’s disappearance as Sam and Bill expected. However, after the kidnapping Sam goes about the countryside, trying to “reconnoiter” the area, but he doesn't understand why nothing is happening: “I expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with scythes and pitchforks,” he says, perplexed. He consistently fails to predict the behavior of those around him, despite his disdain for them as simple. Ultimately, their plan fails because he and Bill are outsiders—they miscalculate how the locals will react to them, and the locals turn out to be full of surprises.
Of course, the most surprising thing that a townsperson does is Ebenezer’s bold reply to Sam’s ransom letter. Instead of agreeing to Sam’s terms (or even negotiating the ransom), Ebenezer has a different idea entirely: Sam and Bill will pay him to return his troublesome son. Finding themselves on the brink of agreeing to Ebenezer's proposition, Sam and Bill must now comply with terms that would have been unimaginable to them before this moment, which shows them adapting to the norms and logic of the town. They’re becoming, in other words, more familiar—they are now less the outsiders they once were. This is also apparent in their warming up to both Johnny and Ebenezer. While they once condescended to Ebenezer, assuming that he would be easily cowed, Bill now shows respect for the man by saying, “Besides being a thorough gentleman, I think Mr. Dorset is a spendthrift for making us such a liberal offer.” With Johnny, too, the men seem to have grown affectionate even if it is somewhat calculated, as when “Bill braced up enough to give the kid a weak sort of a smile.” Seeing both Johnny and Ebenezer as complex, respectable people with redeeming qualities shows that Bill and Sam are becoming familiar with the town in a way an insider would be, which further erodes their ability to resist Ebenezer’s plan.
In the end, Sam and Bill do something surprising: instead of leaving Johnny and fleeing Summit without paying Ebenezer the reverse-ransom, they comply with Ebenezer’s demands, submitting to this “prominent citizen” as though they themselves lived in town and respected its social order. O. Henry never specifies why they do this, and it’s possible that they are simply too foolish to avoid the demanded charge, or that that they want to see Johnny off safely (as they’ve grown somewhat attached). However, it’s also possible that, as defiant outsiders, they would be subject to pursuit and capture as renegade criminals (Ebenezer does warn them, after all, to come at night because he cannot be responsible for what his angry neigborhs might do). By contrast, agreeing to Ebenezer's “counter-proposition” provides a safer (if not more dignified) way to exit, since paying Ebenezer puts the men back on good terms with a powerful man in town. Regardless of why they do it, this final act of capitulation shows the men fully renouncing their sense of superiority as outsiders and succumbing to the town’s norms.
Sam and Bill enter town as renegade outsiders, with an elaborate plan to profit by wielding power over the weak resistance of the local “peasantry,” including Johnny and Ebenezer Dorset. Instead, they find that Johnny has a powerful (even dangerous) imagination, the local populace is not cowed or concerned at Johnny's disappearance, and old Dorset proves a powerful negotiator. In short, Bill and Sam are brought to heel, ultimately giving in to the social norms of the town. To be sure, they remain outsiders in the end, but through cooperation (first with Johnny in his fantasies and then with his father financially), they adjust to the surprising characters and circumstances they find in Summit. After all, “legging it” out of town, as Sam and Bill do, is possibly only because they have been given leave to withdraw and a ten-minute head start.
Outsiders Quotes in The Ransom of Red Chief
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.
The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser.
“He's all right now…We're playing Indian.”
I expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with scythes and pitchforks beating the countryside for the dastardly kidnappers… There was a sylvan attitude of somnolent sleepiness pervading that section of the external outward surface of Alabama that lay exposed to my view.
I never lost my nerve yet till we kidnapped that two-legged skyrocket of a kid... it ain't human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat.
“The boy is gone. I have sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times…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 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.
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.
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.