Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Western Law by Derek Haas
Popcorn Fiction
About Popcorn Fiction Previous stories Letters to the editor Subscribe Submissions

A newspaper writer sets the record straight on a famous trial in this Old West tale from screenwriter/novelist Derek Haas.

Western Law

As a Christian and a chronicler, my duty is to write the truth. Those who have met me know me to be a short man, stocky, as "gaunt as a redwood" as my grandmother joked, with a hooked nose and a bushy beard. I have no education past my tenth year at grammar school, but because I can read and write, the city of Gridley, Kansas, asked me to establish a newspaper here thirty years ago this May, and I have done my best to fulfill the city's ardent hopes. My circulation is meager, my advertising space is forever clipped, my skill with pen and ink is poor, but those who can read assure me they are thankful for the Gridley Beagle. I tell you these shortcomings to reinforce that my eye is fair, and that I copy the news as plainly and with the unbiased verisimilitude befitting a modern newspaper writer.

However, there is one series of articles for which I must first apologize to my loyal readers, and second, fill in the omitted details. Rest assured, I reported only the truth when I wrote of these events over the summer of '89, but I did not, I must confess, give you the whole truth. I hope this pamphlet serves as both a sincere apology and reparation for your limited understanding of these events over these many years. I am dying soon, and I feel an urgency to make honest the record.

I speak, of course, about the Keller boy's murder and the subsequent trial of Oslo Felts. While I assure you every word that appeared under my name in the Beagle was absolutely true, the part I never disclosed had to do with my role in said events. This pamphlet will serve as a supplement. Forgive me if I describe details I've reported before, but since it has been some time, I feel compelled not to simply refresh your memory with the who, what, where, why, and when, but to give you my point of view as these events transpired. Forgive me, secondly, for my lack of flair. I may have a romantic's heart but only a stenographer's talent. I wish I were a gifted storyteller, but I am a fact writer by vocation, and I accept the yoke.

This is the truth.

I was at my press, typesetting the morrow's headline, when I witnessed out my rear window Sheriff Faber and four of his deputies leading a thin, tall man toward the jail. This was first of June. I had never seen the stranger before in Gridley, and as yet, did not know his name. I recollect Sheriff Faber also saw me through the window, after which, he shook his head, knowing correctly, I would soon knock on his door. I snatched up a piece of charcoal I'd been using as a writing implement since Barrett's failed to stock adequate supplies of ink, ripped off a snatch of printing paper, and hustled directly to the jail.

"Now, Jacob, don't go upsettin' nobody till we get to the bottom of the woodpile here," Sheriff Faber said to me by way of greeting.

"Just tell me who this man is, Sheriff..."

Sheriff Faber looked at me with the expression of a poor poker player, his thoughts as easy to read as a school primer. Does he tell me now and get it over with, or allow me to pester him over the course of the day? The former wins out because he gives me the facts as he knows them to this point.

The Keller boy was found in the brush out by Chester Noble's ranch with a hatchet in his chest, his small hands clinging to the handle as though he wanted to pull the vile tool from his body but lacked the strength. Oddly, he was found on his knees, with his hands joined on the handle, the fingers interlocking as though he were in prayer, except the wood he was prostrate before was not the cross of our Lord but a hickory axe handle. He was nine-years-old.

His body was discovered by Mr. Noble as the latter rode back from digging postholes along his fence line and it was only luck the coyotes hadn't found the boy first. Mr. Noble ordered two ranch-hands to keep watch while he galloped directly to Sheriff Faber's house, which, it turns, was a wise reaction to have. The sheriff hurried to the scene of the absurdly inhuman act, and after inspecting the body, laid the boy upon the earth and removed the murderous implement from his chest. As you know, the axe handle had the initials O.F. carved into the belly, and the base of the letter "F" was extended with a jagged line bisecting it to form the sign of the cross. When I first saw it, I must confess the second letter looked like the hilt of a sword, but that was only my first, passing reaction.

Did the sheriff then ride to the Keller homestead near the mineral well and notify Mr. and Mrs. Keller about their dead son? He did.

Did he question the Kellers as to whether or not they had seen the axe before? He did and they had not.

Did he question the Kellers as to their knowledge of any man with the initials "O.F.?" He did and they had none.

Did he question the Kellers as to the last known whereabouts of their son Andrew? He did and they confessed they had not seen Andrew since that morning when he set off to fish the Noble's tank. The Nobles, you might remember at the time, had a fine catfish tank on the Western side of their property and granted to any of the young folk of Gridley permission to dip their corks and carry home their catch.

The Sheriff was interrupted in his duties by the appearance of Mr. Noble's ranch boss, Sully Pankin, who had sweated his painted mare to get to the Kellers as quickly as he could manage. There he without haste identified the axe as belonging to the man we all now know as Oslo Felts.

Upon further questioning, Sully told the Sheriff the following: Oslo Felts was a transient cowboy who came each May to help with the drive. As there was no drive this year, the Nobles having fallen on somewhat hard times due to the outbreak of lumpy jaw amongst their herd, which killed nearly two-thirds of the Noble's stock, Oslo Felts left that morning after breakfast, empty handed. His disposition was "frightfully angry," according to Sully. He was also known to carry a flask in his saddlebags, and might have been nipping whiskey with his coffee. One of the ranch hands, a Mexican named Naranjos who looked as red as any Indian, told Sully that Oslo said he was going to head to Kansas City to see if he could find work slaughtering. Sheriff Faber needed to hear no further, he rode back to Gridley to gather his deputies and his swiftest horses and rode South toward Kansas City, picking the most obvious route through the plains.

They found Oslo Felts bathing in the Coltman's spring, beat the hell out of him, and brought him back to Gridley, which caught me up to the moment I saw him. Now that the lanterns lit his face in the jail cell, I could see that what I mistook for olive skin was, in fact, a bruised and pummeled face.

I thought perhaps no one had asked him the most pertinent question, so I did then. "Oslo Felts, did you kill the boy, Andrew Keller?"

In a voice that was strange and incongruous with a man in his position, he immediately replied, "I have killed no one." It was odd because the man looked a ragamuffin but sounded eloquent.

Sheriff Faber asked me then, impolitely I should add, to leave.

Judge McAbee was due in Gridley on June the 11th, and all trials were thus scheduled for his two-week term. As was his bi-annual habit, he would patronize (gratis) the Widwall Inn, where he would also set up his court in the somewhat capacious lobby. Claim trials and civil matters were set for the first week and jury trials were scheduled for the second week. This system was the reason Oslo Felts did not have our adequate public defender Bill Brooks. As you recall, Bill Brooks died face down in two-feet of water outside the Cat and Tails Saloon toward the end of the first week.

Judge McAbee was eager to conduct the Felts trial anyway, seeing as how the facts were severely damning. On the Friday of the first week, he had Felts brought to the courtroom to ask him if it would be agreeable to him to waive his right to a public defender, and I'll admit, the judge looked rather austere and intimidating when he asked the question, almost demanding an affirmative. Felts, by contrast, looked forlorn and lost. I do believe he would have agreed to waive his rights when a strange young man in the back of the courthouse, a man sitting next to me in fact, stood up.

"I'm an attorney licensed in the great state of Kansas and I will take up this man's defense!" the stranger exclaimed.

"And who are you?" the judge asked, squinting (his eyesight being somewhat suspect in those days.)

"My name is Cannon Tucker," the stranger's voice boomed. "This suspect, Felts, has the right to a defense attorney and I'll take up his defense."

I looked up at the man now, and I must admit I was a little giddy about the arrival of a good story. He was a handsome young man, I guessed to be in his late twenties, though he never told me his age. He had fine brown hair, and if there was a part in it, I couldn't see it. Blue eyes shone brightly above a firm jaw and a thin mouth that looked always to be on the verge of smiling without making a firm commitment to proceed. If I had to describe a dominant expression to his face, I would say this: amused.

The judge, needless to say, was a bit befuddled, so he asked the young man, along with the prosecuting attorney, Walter Pullman, to sidebar with him near the hotel's reception area. I don't know what was said, but it appeared Judge McAbee was satisfied with the answers, for he soon returned to the bench, and asked Oslo Felts if he had any objection to a new Public Defender. Felts looked grateful to have even one man on his side of the courtroom and nodded eagerly.

Immediately after these events, I approached the stranger and introduced myself, humbly. He flashed me his half-smile and said he enjoyed the Beagle very much, and I'll admit that his words made me blush like a woman. I told him I would be eager to write a feature article on Cannon Tucker and what brought him to Gridley, but he said he would consent only after we had shared a bottle of whiskey. Before I knew it, I was sitting inside the Cat and Tails with a bottle on the table and two shot glasses filled to the brim in front of me. I am not and never have been a man to imbibe, but that night I may have had more than one glass of rotgut.

To say that Cannon Tucker commanded all eyes in the room to sweep his way is an understatement. There was something about him that was so affable and infectious, I will admit I felt as though I were seated with Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. This is a rough chronicle of our conversation as best I can recall.

Me: How did you find, Gridley?

Tucker: Just wandering through, friend. I heard court was in session and poked my head inside the Widwall.

Me: Where are you from?

Tucker: The cradle of our government. Washington.

Me: And what brings you West?

Tucker: My feet started moving and the rest of me followed.

Me: Do you have family?

Tucker: You should be an attorney yourself, Mr. Millman. You ask so many damn questions.

Me: Newspapermen and solicitors are a lot alike.

Tucker: Except you're not nearly as drunk as I am. Let's rectify that.

And that was the end of what I can remember of the conversation.

The next day, I was surprised to have Tucker waiting for me in my office when I opened the door. "Jacob, how would you like to join me in interviewing Mr. Felts and maybe helping me with his defense?"

I agreed, if he would help me write a story about the trial when it was over, whatever the result. As you recall, I had many facts in those initial articles that my readers puzzled over, wondering aloud to me how I might have known such things. I'll confess, I knew them because I was there and witnessed the conversations with my own eyes and ears. But this is not the truth I have been eager to share with you now, this is not the great missing piece as to why I am writing this article on my death bed. Read on, and you will have the final fact revealed at the end. I told you I am a clumsy writer, but even I know a few tricks to keep interest alive throughout a fine article.

When we arrived at the jail, Cannon Tucker politely asked the sheriff and his deputies to leave us alone with his client and cited some obscure law from the Kansas State Code, which I'll confess I'd never heard of existing in our young state. I will admit, Tucker had a way of saying things that sounded like honey on the ears, where it became nearly impossible to doubt his authority. Reluctantly, Sheriff Faber took Lester with him and closed the door behind them.

Oslo Felts looked even more gaunt than before, and though his face had somewhat healed, his eyes were dark circles from what I'm sure were many sleepless nights thinking about the hangman's rope.

Here is a rough transcription of the conversation as best I can remember:

Tucker: Mr. Felts, can you tell me everything you did on the first of May, the day of the murder?

Felts: I can't say as I remember exactly.

Tucker: Well, then, best you can remember is fine.

Felts: I was upset, I remember that. I was led to believe there would be work at the Noble's ranch, but that was a bunch of bosh.

Tucker: Why were you led to believe this?

Felts: The Noble ranch boss? Sully Pankin. He met me at the C and T a couple of nights before.

Tucker: You knew him?

Felts: Yessir. I'd worked for him three drives. Mr. Noble paid decent.

Tucker: And so naturally you thought you'd be welcomed again?

Felts: I s'pose. Like I said, I met Sully at the saloon, where he proceeded to lose fourteen dollars to me at Faro. 'Cept he didn't have the money to square it.

Tucker: I see.

Felts: So he told me he'd get me on for the drive soon. 'Cept there was no drive that year, on account of the sick herd, and he knew it. I heard as such and rode out to ask Sully what for.

Tucker: What did he say when you arrived?

Felts: That I wasn't remembering correctly.

Tucker: Why would he say that?

Felts: I have a tendency to drink.

Tucker: Copiously?

Felts: You might say that.

Tucker: Where are you from, Mr. Felts?

Felts: From?

Tucker: A man who knows the meaning of "copiously" is not from around here, I'd posit.

At this point, I remember, Felts eyed Cannon Tucker warily. For the first time, I thought this Tucker surely must be an excellent trial attorney, for his reasoning was sound and his method of questioning was like a hypnotist's trick. I found myself on the edge of my seat, writing furiously, the ink so thin on the page that I was absently forgetting to dip the quill!

Instead of continuing to transcribe their conversation, I'll inform you of the most pertinent facts. Felts admitted to hail from Philadelphia, where he had received a college education at the university established by Benjamin Franklin. He liked to work with his hands and had an eagerness to see the West, and so rode out as a young man to enjoy his life. Whiskey had gotten its jealous grip on him soon thereafter, and he found its powers unbreakable. He spent his time cattle driving and drinking and not doing much else. It wasn't a good life, he admitted. But he protested that he had never seen the boy in question, had ridden off angry at Sully Pankin, who had, in fact, struck him with his fists for simply approaching and asking for either his owed fourteen dollars or work on the ranch. He admitted to being under the influence of whiskey at the time. He remembers riding away, shame-faced and angry, and doesn't remember much else besides bathing in the spring and then getting yanked out by his hair and pummeled by an excitable sheriff's posse. He did own the murderous weapon in question—he had carved his initials on the handle—but does not remember when or how it left his saddlebag.

Cannon Tucker listened to this, all the time prodding with questions in the manner transcribed above, while failing to hide that half-smile of his. When he finished, he thanked Mr. Felts, and he and I left to sup in the back of Curtman's Butcher's Shop, where a man could have a steak and eggs cooked in a pan and served by an Irish woman named Mary O'Shannon who was not displeasing to the eye. All for thirty-seven cents.

While chewing his steak, Tucker informed me that Oslo Felts was a drunk but he was not a liar. Tucker had spent a great many hours in the company of liars, thieves, confidence men, and ruffians, and Oslo Felts did not fit the bill. I asked him how he could be certain, and Mr. Tucker told me that he knew when to trust his intuition and his intuition was telling him that he needed to talk to the ranch boss Sully Pankin as soon as possible.

I arranged a meeting the next day at Sully Pankin's cabin on the Noble's ranch, which also provided Mr. Tucker with a chance to visit the scene of the horrific and villainous act. There was not much to see except for a fishing tank in a pasture surrounded by a smattering of live oaks scattered with scrub-brush. A couple of young boys were dipping corks in the tank and watching us cautiously, presumably because their parents had decided to share with them the details of young Andrew Keller's death. Cannon Tucker moved over to converse with them, but I remained on the far side of the tank, staring at the spot where the boy was found, seeing in my mind's eye those small fingers clutched reverently around the axe handle as though asking God to find his killer. I'll admit my eyes clouded with tears. I am an emotional man, and I apologize for it.

In Mr. Pankin's cabin, we sat on either side of a block table to conduct the interview. I have to be honest and say Mr. Pankin looked like a coyote during a hunt; his eyes seemed to pull back almost into his skull whenever Cannon Tucker asked him a question. It was a disturbing affectation I don't remember witnessing before.

The first part of the interview was merely recollecting the facts as they have been described here before. How the boy was found, how the axe belonged to Oslo Felts, how Felts had been angry about the lack of work and had left in a rage, so I do not need to repeat it here. Instead, I will remind you of the interesting part of the interview.

Tucker: How long have you been working for Mr. Noble?

Pankin: Oh, 'bout twenty years.

Tucker: How often do you visit the fishing tank?

Pankin: Oh, not often. Occasionally. If repairs and other work get done I might get out there once a week.

Tucker: How often do you have the fishing tank to yourself?

Pankin: Most often. There'll be boys over there ever now and again.

Tucker: You ever fish with the boys?

Pankin: Occasionally.

Tucker: You ever fish with Andrew Keller?

Pankin: I taught that boy how to hold a pole to catch a bass.

Tucker: How you do that? Hold a pole I mean?

Pankin: Well you have to hold it up high so the cork stays in one spot, y'see? You don't want it jumpin' around the tank. Say, what's this have to do with Oslo Felts?

Tucker: I'm just trying to paint a complete picture but right now I only have the outlines penciled in.

Pankin: I don't know what that means but you ought to speak plain, Mr. Tucker.

Tucker: Forgive me. I only have a few more questions. You're not married, Mr. Pankin?

Pankin: Margaret died of tuberculosis. Never found another like her since.

Tucker: Any children?

Pankin: Had a boy, George. He run off ten years back.

Tucker: How old was George when he ran off?

Pankin: Fourteen.

Tucker: The Nobles treat you nicely here?

Pankin: The Nobles are the most decent people you ever met. Mr. Noble set up the church charity and built the schoolhouse. It's a dark thing that's fallen on him here...first the lumpy jaw, then this damned business.

Tucker: Why'd George run off?

Pankin: Boy had a mind of his own. Say, what's your concern with this, fella?

Now, I'll stop the transcription here because it grew pretty heated in that little cabin after this exchange. Sully Pankin thought maybe Mr. Tucker was unfit to be an attorney in Kansas if he was asking personal questions about Sully Pankin rather than convincing himself of the guilt of Oslo Felts, and Mr. Tucker would just keep that half-smile on his face while standing his ground. We were asked to leave shortly thereafter, and a few unprintable words were uttered as we left. Cannon Tucker seemed particularly pleased with himself as we rode back to the main street in Gridley, but at this point, I couldn't figure as to why. Remember then, I had no inkling as to how he would present his case to the judge in defense of Oslo Felts, but I now know he had decided his methods immediately following that conversation.

The trial took place two days later, as you remember, and the Widwall was filled to capacity with most every citizen of Gridley. Even those who didn't have the decency to show up to church were wearing their Sunday best in the benches of the lobby. The heat was unbearable and women pushed hot air around with their hand-fans so that the grease of my pencil practically melted the paper as I hastened to record every bit of that trial.

First came Sheriff Faber's testimony in which he recounted all that had transpired on that miserable day. Our Sheriff certainly has roughness to his character but he is an honest and decent man and I'm honored to have known him. Next came the testimony of Chester Noble, and he could not mask his tears as he recounted finding the Keller boy in that supplicating repose. Many women were crying into their kerchiefs during his testimony. Sully Pankin witnessed next and he eyed the defense attorney as warily as a kicked cur but Cannon Tucker refused his chance to cross-examine the witness. I will admit I watched Oslo Felts grow more and more despondent as the prosecutor concluded his case against the transient cowboy known for his proclivity to drink to excess and his anger which many had witnessed at the Cat and Tails. Trials are a curious event in the way that when a spectator hears the first half of the testimony from the prosecutor's point of view, why, there is no doubt as to the defendant's guilt! And when subsequently, he hears the second half of the testimony from the defendant's point of view, why the accused must be innocent! Except, Cannon Tucker seemed to have forgotten his role in this drama. The courtroom was ready to bumrush the defendant's table and string Mr. Felts up from the nearest oak, I am ashamed to admit. I might even have provided the rope.

When Judge McAbee asked Mr. Tucker if he would like to call any witnesses, he replied that he would like to call just one. Of course, everyone thought he would call Oslo Felts himself, who had yet to say a word in his own defense. At some ridiculous spot in my brain, I thought he might call Sully Pankin, for whatever Mr. Tucker was driving towards in the ranch boss's cabin might have led one to believe Mr. Pankin would provide an alternative suspect to the murder.

Instead, Cannon Tucker called to the witness stand a man he'd never met. It is impossible for any of us to forget that he called Mr. Chester Noble.

Tucker: Mr. Noble, how long have you owned your ranch just outside Gridley proper?

Noble: Twenty years.

Tucker: I see. And how long have you employed Sully Pankin?

Noble: Since the get-go.

Tucker: Mr. Noble, you are a Christian man, correct?

Noble: Yes, of course.

Tucker: And you set up the Church charity?

Noble: Yes.

Tucker: And built the schoolhouse?

Noble: I did.

Tucker: You're good to children, would you say?

Noble: God says to let the children come to him, for to such belongs the kingdom of Heaven.

Tucker: The Bible says that?

Noble: Yes, it does.

Tucker: Do you have children of your own?

Noble: No.

Tucker: Why not, if you love children so much?

Noble: That is a deeply personal question, sir.

Tucker: I mean, if you are so passionate about children, why wouldn't you have any of your own?

Noble: I would advise you to stop, sir.

Tucker: Judge, I'm asking a reasonable question.

Noble: My wife is barren, sir!

Tucker: I'm sorry—

Noble: Are you pleased with yourself that you have embarrassed her in front of the whole town?

Tucker: I'm sorry—

Noble: Judge, I don't understand why I've been recalled to witness here, but I have had quite enough. The guilty man is seated there and God help his soul, he will be hung before sunrise. But I've had enough of this stranger's questioning and I'm leaving.

Tucker: You aren't excused.

Noble: What did you say?

Tucker: I haven't finished questioning you.

Noble: This is outrageous. Judge, I demand this trial be concluded immediately.

Tucker: Mr. Felts has the right to a fair trial which means an adequate defense under Kansas law. I've called only one witness, Judge McAbee. I will call him and only one more. But I need to finish questioning this witness.

McAbee: If you'll return to the chair, Mr. Noble, I will promise you I'll knock this gavel just as soon as this lawyer goes further astray.

Tucker: Thank you, your honor. Now, Mr. Noble, how long have you allowed children to fish on your property?

Noble: Since I bought the ranch.

Tucker: You see a lot of children out there?

Noble: They come all summer.

Tucker: Mostly boys?

Noble: Well, who else likes to fish, sir?

Tucker: I see. Do you like to fish?

Noble: I do.

Tucker: Do you teach the boys to fish?

Noble: I—I help out when I can.

Tucker: Did you teach George Pankin to fish?

Noble: George?

Tucker: Your foreman's boy.

Noble: George? What do you mean?

Tucker: I mean, did you teach your ranch foreman's boy how to fish?

Noble: I'm sure I—

Tucker: At your tank when no one else was around?

Noble: I—

Tucker: Do you know what else the Bible says, Mr. Noble? It says "Train up a child in the way he should go." Do you think you trained up George Pankin?

Noble: I don't—

Tucker: Your honor I have one other witness outside the hotel, waiting to come in and testify. His name is George Pankin.

Noble: George? That's...that's impossible...

Tucker: He's older now, but he remembers all about fishing at the Noble's tank. He remembers why he ran off at fourteen.

Noble: This can't...this is untrue.

Tucker: You like children, don't you, Mr. Noble? And when they don't want to be liked, you strike them, don't you?

Noble: I can't—

Tucker: The way you struck George Pankin until he ran off.

Noble: I—

Tucker: The way you struck Andrew Keller with an axe!

Noble: I—

Tucker: You like boys, and your tank provided you access to the innocent. I'm pretty sure the Bible has plenty to say about murdering the innocent. George Pankin ran off but Andrew Keller wasn't so fortunate.

Noble: You!

Tucker: George Pankin will tell everyone here how you—

Noble: George Pankin can't be here! I drowned him in that tank! I baptized him there! I—

I need not recount for you the gasps, sighs and fainting that transpired in that hotel's lobby. You all remember the way Sully Pankin launched up from his bench and attacked Chester Noble until no less than eight men pulled him away. You remember the startling confessions of Chester Noble that filled the pages of the Beagle for weeks subsequent the trial, right up until his hanging. And you remember that Oslo Felts left Gridley for the East where I discovered through the post he had turned from alcohol, married, and become a professor of literature at his alma mater.

And still you're wondering what I have to tell you that I omitted from my original articles. Why I would drudge up these profoundly sad memories and force you to relive them in my words. As I said, I did not report all the facts then, and so I will report for you now the denouement, if I'm using that term correctly. I'll report of my last conversation with Cannon Tucker before he mounted his horse and rode out of Gridley. I've waited all this time because I didn't want his reputation sullied, and I didn't want his talents at the Felts trial to be diminished. I shudder to think what would have happened had Cannon Tucker not stood up and said he would defend that poor wretch. How an innocent man's blood would have marred Gridley's soul.

Cannon Tucker shook my hand before he mounted his horse, that perpetual crooked grin on his worthy face.

"Please stay in Gridley," I told him. "We could use a lawyer with your skill, Mr. Tucker."

His smile actually spread, and for the first time, took up the entirety of his mouth. "I have a confession to make, Mr. Millman. I'm not really a lawyer."

And with that, he rode toward Kansas City.

About the Author

Derek Haas is the co-writer, with his partner Michael Brandt, of the films 3:10 TO YUMA and WANTED. He is the author of the novels THE SILVER BEAR and COLUMBUS, and his third novel in the series will be out next summer. His partner directed and he produced the film THE DOUBLE, starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace, which will be out next year. The only reason he gets his stories published here is he created the site.