By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘One Dollar’s Worth’ is a short story by the American writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). A trademark of the O. Henry story is the surprise twist ending, and ‘One Dollar’s Worth’ certainly has a few surprises in store for the reader in its closing paragraphs. The story is about a criminal who seeks vengeance on the judge who put him in prison, by intending to kill the judge’s daughter.
You can read ‘One Dollar’s Worth’ here. The story takes perhaps 10 minutes to read. Below, we offer a summary and analysis of O. Henry’s tale.
‘One Dollar’s Worth’: summary
A judge on the US-Mexico border, named Derwent, receives a letter from a criminal he had sent to prison for four years. The man, who has now been released, tells the judge that his daughter died one year into his prison sentence, supposedly from the ‘disgrace’ of having a father in jail.
The criminal, who signs the letter simply as ‘Rattlesnake’ in reference to the judge’s description of him during his sentencing, tells the judge that he is going to make him feel the pain of losing a daughter.
The judge dismisses the note as an idle threat, as does the young district attorney, Bob Littlefield, who is due to marry the judge’s daughter, Nancy. They look through the court records and decide that Mexico Sam, a man sentenced to prison for manslaughter four years ago, is the most likely candidate for the ‘Rattlesnake’. The court is in session, and a Mexican named Rafael Ortiz, who was apprehended trying to spend a counterfeit silver dollar, is awaiting trial.
When Nancy comes to visit Littlefield in his office, where he is preparing for the trial with his deputy, Kilpatrick, she persuades him to take her plover-shooting in the afternoon. However, their plans are interrupted by the arrival of a young Mexican woman, Joya Treviñas, who pleads that Ortiz is innocent and that she forged the counterfeit dollar. She also claims that she was sick with fever, and explains that Ortiz was using the counterfeit coin to pay for medicine for her. She speaks to Kilpatrick, since he understands Spanish and the girl cannot speak English.
Littlefield dismisses the girl, but before Treviñas leaves, she whispers the message to Kilpatrick (but clearly meant for Littlefield) that ‘if the life of the girl you love is ever in danger, remember Rafael Ortiz.’ Nancy pleads with Littlefield to do something to help the young lovers, but he says there is nothing he can do and Ortiz is already as good as convicted.
When Littlefield and Nancy are returning in their carriage from their afternoon of plover-shooting, they see a man with a rifle coming towards them. Littlefield recognises the man as Mexico Sam, the probable match for the ‘Rattlesnake’ who had threatened Judge Derwent.
Sam opens fire on the couple, who dive for cover. Sam’s weapon allows him to fire on the pair, but he remains out of range from their shots, since they have only birdshot rather than the buckshot they’d need to hit Sam from such a distance.
Littlefield tells Nancy to shoot at Sam to disorient him while he takes out his pocket-knife. He then raises his shotgun as Sam rides nearer, and fires a deadly shot at the man. The next day, at the trial of Ortiz, Littlefield, who has his arm in a sling, tells the court that the evidence condemning Ortiz is no longer available and so the charge against him must be dropped.
At the end of the story, Littlefield tells his deputy, Kilpatrick, how he managed to find a bullet to kill Sam. He used the counterfeit dollar, which was made of lead, to fashion a bullet and used that to dispatch his assailant. He asks Kilpatrick for the address of Treviñas, the Mexican girl, as Nancy wants to know where to find her.
‘One Dollar’s Worth’: analysis
‘One Dollar’s Worth’ is slightly unusual among O. Henry’s sizeable oeuvre of short stories, in that it is not set in New York – the city in which he lived for many years – but among the Wild West, near the Mexican border. This was also a part of the United States that O. Henry knew well, having lived there in his twenties and thirties (before he was arrested on charges of embezzlement and fled to Central America, where he coined the term ‘banana republic’).
Nevertheless, ‘One Dollar’s Worth’ is quintessential O. Henry. It contains many of the characteristic features of his short stories, including irony and a surprise twist ending. Here, of course, the twist is that Littlefield uses the silver dollar to fashion a lead bullet which saves him and his fiancée.
But the irony of ‘One Dollar’s Worth’ lies in the fact that the very thing which was to spell the doom of one romantic couple in the story – Rafael Ortiz and his sweetheart, Joya Treviñas – ends up saving the other romantic couple, Littlefield and Nancy. And in doing so, the dollar ceases to be admissible as evidence, and thus Ortiz is also saved.
There are other forms of mirroring or dovetailing in the story, whereby the two couples reflect and complement each other. Nancy is the only one who listens sympathetically to Joya’s plea for mercy for her lover: it takes the woman in the room to feel for another woman’s plight, especially the plight of a woman in love.
What’s more, the girl’s parting comment to Littlefield – that if the woman he loves is ever in danger, he should remember the name of Rafael Ortiz – turns out not merely to be a plea for sympathy but practical advice which gives him the bright idea to use the lead coin as a makeshift bullet.
And thus, what starts out as a cry from the heart ends up being pragmatic wisdom which saves Littlefield and Nancy in their moment of need. O. Henry’s title, ‘One Dollar’s Worth’, is a neat pun: it suggests a common American phrase (as in ‘one dollar’s worth of medicine’, which Ortiz is attempting to buy for Joya) but also invites us to reflect on the ‘worth’, or value, of this one dollar coin, a coin whose value turns out not to be monetary (it’s a forged counterfeit) but altogether more surprising.