We’re proud to present a classic magazine profile by Richard Ben Cramer. “The Ballad of Johnny France” first appeared in the October, 1985 issue of Esquire and it is reprinted here with permission from the author.
The Ballad of Johnny France
Listen to the story of the lonesome lawman who went hunting in the mountains for Don and Dan Nichols, and who finally got ‘em, right there, by the campfire
By Richard Ben Cramer
You probably heard of the case, the young woman from Bozeman, Montana, who got kidnapped by Mountain Men. Her name was Kari Swenson. She was a world-class biathlete. Last July, as she was training, running a trail near the Big Sky resort, two men jumped out of the woods, grabbed her, and chained her up to a tree. These were Mountain Men, father and son. Turned out they were hunting a wife.
Well, they couldn’t have picked worse. Not that Kari wasn’t good-looking, or strong enough, or able to teach them a thing or two about social graces. She was all that and more: twenty-three, a graduate of Montana State U, tops at skiing and shooting, friendly in better circumstances. In fact, you could call Kari Swenson a proper belle of Bozeman, the perfect flower of the New West. Just happened the New West and these Mountain Men didn’t have much in common.
Did they mean to woo her with the squirrel they served? The boy so proud: he’d caught dinner with his cunning snare. And the old man, clever, careful; tending his crusted skillet on a smokeless squaw-wood fire. But Kari wouldn’t eat their mess. When the father left the campfire, she pleaded with the son: “You could let me go. I wouldn’t tell anyone.” The young man seemed to consider this. He said: “No, you’re pretty. I think I’ll keep you.”
Did the old man think they might win her over? “Just stay three days and you’ll start to love it….” But his mountain-wife dream wouldn’t last that long.
By dawn, there were fifty people on the trail or on their way: her parents from Montana State U, all hangs from the dude ranch where she worked, dogs, helicopters, lots of lawmen, Sheriff Onstad from Bozeman. This was tough country, steep and wild, and you couldn’t see ten yards through the timber. Sure enough, two searchers from the dude ranch would have walked right past Kari and her captors. But then they heard the shot.
They busted in on the campsite. Kari was chained up and bleeding. The young Mountain Man was crouched near the campfire, holding a gun, crying: “Oh, God, I didn’t mean to shoot her. Oh, God…” Kari had taken a .22 slug through her lung and out her back.
One of the searchers, Al Goldstein—he’d been in Montana only two years—circled around the campsite, dug in a pack, came up with a pistol. He yelled: “Put down your guns. You’re surrounded by two hundred men.” But the old man had a rifle. He wheeled and shot. Goldstein went down hard, on his back, the pistol in one loose hand, a walkie-talkie in the other, with one eye open and the other shot away, his mouth full of blood to the top.
The other searcher ran for his life. Father and son took the chain off Kari, left her to die. They said they’d kill anyone who came after them. They took off through the timber, and so began a five-month hunt for two men in the wilds of America.
But first there’s Kari Swenson, bleeding in the woods back up on the ridge. And below at the trailhead, there’s her father, Bob Swenson, chairman of the physics department at Montana State U, screaming at the sheriff from Bozeman: “DO SOMETHING!” And there’s Sheriff Onstad, trying to explain that he is doing something, that his men are searching in the air, on the ground, and anyway, there’s a problem: he has looked at a map and it’s not his county, not a case for Bozeman, or even Big Sky. They’re over the county line, off his turf. In fact, Kari’s six-mile run took this case right out of the New West.
Onstad explains that it’s Madison County, and that’s Sheriff Johnny France, and…Where is Johnny?
Well, Johnny does get there, at least in good time for the rescue. He’d stopped to commandeer a helicopter from an oil business near Ennis. As a matter of fact, it’s Johnny’s chopper that winches down an aluminum basket to hoist Kari off to the hospital. But when they lift her into the basket and flash the high sign and the chopper swings up, damn if they don’t mash that poor woman right into a dead lodgepole pine. “Yuh, almost dropped her,” recalls Johnny France. “Didn’t, though.”
Johnny gets busy at the crime scene: borrows a camera, takes the pictures himself. Mostly, they’ll just come out blank. He picks at the campsite for clues on the killers: a bit of flour and a few shell casings. Maybe some computer can match the shells—but that‘ll take time. Deputies with dogs want to get on the trail. Sheriff Onstad is setting up roadblocks already. Word has spread to Big Sky and back to Bozeman. The men of the New West are taking up guns. Women are locked in their houses. Maniacs loose in the woods! And where is Johnny?
Well, Johnny comes out of the woods pretty late. He’s thinking, doesn’t hurry. Drives the others nuts. “You know,” he tells a deputy, “there’s a fellow used to stay near the power plant, up the Beartrap. Had a son. Have to check, but, uh, his name mighta been Dan….”
Turns out he didn’t have to check—not for names, anyway. Search and rescue men with chain saws were already cutting on a pine tree at Ulery’s Lake. They carried out a three-foot stretch of log, emblazoned with a careful, curly print:
Once, when the boy was only nine and didn’t come home from summer in the woods with his daddy, the mother called Madison County, set the sheriff to hunting father and son. Old Roy Kitson was sheriff then. He and Deputy France had to hunt ten days to find Don and Dan up Beartrap Canyon. The mother drove down from White Sulpher Springs the following day. Meantime, Kitson took the boy home to give him a meal, maybe a bath. The boy had only his dirty clothes, a sleeping bag, and heavy field glasses that hung from his neck. Kitson’s wife, Minnie, tried to make conversation: “Oh, Danny,” she said, “where’d you get the big binoculars?” The boy didn’t seem to understand. Minnie reached out to touch the field glasses: “These…” But the boy twisted away. “No,” Dan said, “those are my people watchers.” He wouldn’t say much more.
Back in those days—that was ten years ago—Don only had summers to teach the boy in the woods. Come fall, it was hard to give him up. Don adored that boy: “I’d lay down my life for him,” he used to say, and no one who saw them together could doubt it. They’d come off the mountains, get to a store, and the topic was always, What does Dan want? More soda pop? Candy to take back to the woods? Nothing was too good for him. Don went without to give him presents, or money if he had any. But mostly he wanted to give Dan teaching: that’s what he’d missed.
Don Nichols’s father worked the mines around Norris, until he died in a car wreck. Don’s mother raised the kids, cleaning houses or doing other little jobs. Don never seemed to have a good coat, or the right shoes for the snow. He was a quiet kid, a hiker and hunter, smart enough to graduate at the head of Harrison High. But when his mother remarried, Don never got on with the new man or the new rules. He went off to the Navy, and no one in Norris saw him much after that, though they knew he’d come back—Montana was the only home for him.
Don left the Navy on a Section 8, mental instability. He talked like he’d put one over on the Navy, and he did seem straight enough. He found a wife in West Virginia, got a job there for Union Carbide. He made good money, they had Dan and a daughter, and another man might have been happy. Not Don. More and more, he talked about Back to Montana. He’d build them a cabin in the mountains. Well, Verdina, the wife, came from the mountains. She knew what hauling water was, and she liked her washer-drier. She’d come along to Montana, all right, but as to mountain life—“Living like the Indians,” Don said—no, there she drew the line.
So Don was on his own, with his mountains, his books, and the ideas he took from them. History, for example: he’d looked into all of America’s wars and figured out the British caused every one. Science: he saw no use for doctors; he cured himself with herbs or steam, laughing when he heard what hospitals charged. He’d read on the land’s geology, on the rivers’ biology. Walking, hunting, fishing, snaring, shooting—these he knew without books. Walking, there was no one to beat him. Don had long skinny legs, too long for him by strict proportion, but they could cover trail. They say one time he walked to Canada. The man could just walk forever.
And that’s what he meant to do. Most years he’d come off the mountains, walk or hitch to Jackson, Wyoming. There, an old guy with a machine shop had a job for Don whenever he showed. Don would work for a few months, then head back to his mountains. Once, he didn’t even say goodbye, just left a note on his bench: “The berries are ripe in Montana.” Don thought a man’s needs should be simple—that was one of his philosophies. He had one friend in Jackson, Adele Della Porta, a woman who lived with her cats in a trailer across from the cabins where Don always stayed. He’d go into Adele’s place and see the big desk where she kept all her papers, and he’d get to laughing and pointing, and say: “What the hell do you need all that for?” She didn’t mind. She knew him. She’d have him over for dinner, and he’d eat her spaghetti with a knife, telling her how the country was going to hell, how they’re ruining the mountains with their laws and money. “But they’ll never get me. I’ll be free to the end!” One Thanksgiving she cooked a turkey and trimmings; he ate the whole thing with a spoon. She scolded: “Oh, Don, you know better!” He said: “Aw, what’s the difference?”
He asked Adele once to go to the mountains, be his partner in the natural life. She said she didn’t like him that way. He took it amiably. But that was his one problem in the woods: loneliness, save when the boy was there. He’d never admit to fatigue or cold, hunger or want. “I could live a hundred years on what I got stashed up there!” But Don did want a mate, not to marry—“I’ve had enough of that”—just to share, fifty-fifty, like the Indians did. He said he knew one Mountain Man who got himself a young “hippie gal,” and they went to the woods and it turned out fine. “Just spend three days and you’ll start to love it.” That’s what he told all the women he asked. They thought he was crazy, but he was used to that. When this land was invaded, they’d see he was right. Then they’d be slaves. But he’d be free. “They’ll never take me alive!” And now he’d taught the boy, too.
Dan was growing up a handsome lad, but hard to talk to. He had few friends in White Sulpher Springs, didn’t hang out at the drive-in or any of that. What he loved was summer in the mountains with his father. He’d crow: “We can live anywhere!” Wouldn’t talk about their campsites, though. They were secret, couldn’t be seen at all: “That’s how we pick them.” Back in town, the boy seemed withdrawn. There was a stepfather, and rules Dan didn’t like. He didn’t like school, except for art: he could draw and paint, and letter beautifully. The teachers encouraged him, gave him a school wall for a mural. Dan worked hard and made a good picture: mountains, timber, blue sky…and in the foreground a blond girl and a unicorn. There was a blond girl he liked in Three Forks, where his uncle lived. Dan got a knife and chased her down the street. She got to a house and called the cops. Next day, Sheriff Onstad spotted Dan at a sporting-goods store, shopping at the used-gun rack. Dan was booked on assault, juvenile. Soon after that he left school, never came back for senior year. He went to the woods with his daddy when he was eighteen, in the summer of ’83, and that was the last folks knew of him, until Kari Swenson went missing.
Then Don and Dan seemed to be everywhere. They were sighted from Alaska to Texas. People Weekly ran sketches of them. Network crews came to wait for more shooting. The Washington Post arrived to check out this Mountain Man Sub-culture (“How many hundreds are we talking about?”).
Of course, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle was full of Mountain Men:
‘THEY’RE NOT MONSTERS,’ SAYS NICHOLS’ EX-WIFE
A WIFE FOR SON MAY HAVE PROMPTED KIDNAPPING
NICHOLS A ‘NICE MAN’ BORN 100 YEARS TOO LATE
It got so the Swensons broke their own bitter silence, wrote to the Chronicle to complain about all this Old West romance:
MOUNTAIN MEN KIDNAPPERS AREN’T ‘NICE GUYS’…
Even in private, Jan Swenson, Kari’s mother, wouldn’t say the name Nichols. She called father and son The Creeps, or just Them, as in “I want to see them brought out feetfirst.”
But it wasn’t just Jan Swenson. All of Bozeman and Big Sky, the brave New West, wanted these two scalps, wanted them quick—and quiet. This could wreck all their careful building! When the Chronicle reported orders to evacuate the guest ranch at Big Sky, the owner, Bob Schaap, called up screaming that they’d ruin business. Reservations were off everywhere, campgrounds were empty. The main lodge at Big Sky was asked to post warnings: DANGEROUS MEN IN THE WOODS. They put it up so small you had to squint to read it. But all this went deeper than business. Bozeman—home of Montana State U, a new high-tech industrial park, clean neighbors and clean air, ski and Brie, Bobcats football—was full of folks who’d moved away from the dirt and wackos of Detroit or L.A. At Big Sky—the lodge, the dude ranch, the condos by the golf course, the “rustic” prefab log homes—they’d bought in for skiing, hunting, fishing, the postcard views in picture windows. The mountains were theirs by right, by dint of deed and hefty mortgage. And this was the true crime of Don and Dan Nichols: they’d stolen the mountains from the New West. Now there was doubt in the forest, blood on the slopes of paradise.
Who to turn to? Well, more than one good burgher of Bozeman said it was a shame, that county line, how it took the case from their own fine department, Bozeman’s big Law and Justice Center, and their own Sheriff Onstad, a modern lawman, an MSU grad, a man People mag called “a cultured Matt Dillon.” Instead—well, they’d have to hope for the best with Johnny France. They called him “that cowboy over the ridge,” or worse: Bob Schaap, Kari’s boss, called him “a bungler” flat-out; Jan Swenson told friends Johnny was “pathetic.” Even the network crews got to chuckling, as they sat around in their rent-a-cars, dreaming up the TV movie, and someone said: “Well, who should play him?” They settled on Dennis Weaver, but someone leaked it to Johnny and he wasn’t happy. He started patting his .44 Magnum every once in a while and muttering, “Make my day.”
Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t loud about it. That’s not how you get elected sheriff in Madison County, Montana. No, if you ever hear Johnny talk, he’ll be soft and slow-voiced, and he’ll likely have one hand propped up and grazing his lips for no reason while you lean in and strain to hear him. Then he’ll talk at his boots for a while, which makes matter worse. That’s how I first heard him talking in his regular booth, center row, at Bettie’s (“Just Good Food”) Café. Or almost heard him. Bettie’s, on Main Street, Ennis, is noisy when the ranchers come in to breakfast.
There wasn’t much to hear that day, anyway. Johnny wasn’t talking about his plans. Never has for forty-four years. These Mountain Men, for instance—he hardly said a word. But he dreamed of them, or lay awake at night rehearsing the capture in scenes on his ceiling. By day, he was sort of absent, mulling it over in his head until you’d think he couldn’t find his own office. That’s what got all the other law enforcement so mad, when he wouldn’t call, wouldn’t show up, or wouldn’t know what they were talking about when they mentioned this or that report. And Sue France worried, but she’d worried twenty-five years, since they married. She was sure he knew what he was doing, which he did, most of the time. He might not have always known what to do, but he knew what he had to get done. And he had to do it alone.
Not that he was short of friends or advice. After a month of a fruitless hunt, countless over-flights, daily horse patrols, two swoops by visiting SWAT teams, a flying inspection by the U.S. marshals; after Goldstein’s brother sent a tracker guru (Jesus, with earrings!) twice from New Jersey; after the U.S. Forest Service threw in an infrared detector so slick it could sense body heat even from an airplane (but it was summer, when every rock in the woods threw heat—lit that scope like a jukebox); after the Feds buried in the woods two surplus Vietnam sensor bugs (didn’t work any better here than they did in the DMZ); after dozens of promising tips that failed and five times as many blind alleys, there were friends who were glad to tell Johnny, “You’ll never get ‘em. They made Canada. You ask me, they’re gone….” But Johnny didn’t ask them. And there were the Old West ranchers who wanted to know, “What the hell’s the big deal? Ol’ Don didn’t mean to hurt nobody. Heh. Ol’ Don just thinks he’s a, uh, Mountain Man.” But Johnny would answer, “Yuh, I know him. And I’ll get him. Uh, I’m a Mountain Man, too.”
Johnny was raised to the old life and law on a ranch overhanging the Madison River. His mother died when he was four. His daddy was a drinker, not much for raising kids, so Johnny was farmed off to an uncle, Joe France, the toughest rancher around. Johnny’s face still pinches up when he talks of one November day when he and his uncle and Aunt Eva were cutting calves away from their mothers on the range high above the river, and the temperature was down below zero, the wind blowing snow at thirty miles an hour, and Johnny was cold to his bones and eight years old. Of course, the heifers tried to stay with their calves, and the calves tried to follow their mothers into a rocky draw in the ridge, and Johnny’s old gray horse got snorty and cattle were scattering everywhere and Johnny ached and his eyes stung and he started to cry. Joe France rode over and fixed the boy with a stare of contempt. “Don’t just sit there and bawl and boohoo!” he yelled at Johnny. “Dammit, get moving!”
That snapped something, sure enough. Joe would never see him cry again. Got so when Johnny was eleven or twelve, they never found a horse he couldn’t break, and even Joe said, once in a while, that they boy was pretty damn good. As for Johnny, he was never prouder than he was after one rodeo, when an old-timer came up to say: “Saw you ride. You remind me of your Uncle Joe.” So he did, and he might have come out just as rough if it weren’t for the Shirleys, who bought the next-door ranch was Johnny was eight. The Shirleys’ roaring stove, laughter, hugging, and hot pies were the perfect complement to Uncle Joe’s school of hard riding. Johnny and Forrest Shirley would rassle on the floor, Forrest giggling as much as the child. And Betsy Shirley would grab that boy for no reason, hold him out at arm’s length, throw her head back, say “I love you, Johnny!” then gather him into a mother hug, and he’d end up on her lap. During four years of Harrison High he lived with the Shirleys, except summers, when he rode the range with Uncle Joe and the cowboys.
At nineteen, Johnny was riding stock that most men wouldn’t touch. Soon it was a rodeo every weekend, sometimes two, and it seemed natural—not just riding, but being watched, too. Johnny worked as a wrangler at the Elkhorn dude ranch, but he lived only for the rodeo—until he met Sue. She was of a kind he’d never seen: boarding schools, eastern manners, and not too happy when her mother sent her to the ranch for two weeks of work. Sue saw him her first night there, at one end of the long dining table, with a pretty girl at the other end trying to toss grapes into Johnny’s mouth. Well, Johnny saw Sue, too, turned his head, went for a grape at the same time, and fell right off his chair.
Sue’s mother took a while to calm down (“At least,” she sniffed finally, “it’ll never be boring”), but it wasn’t long before Sue France was driving off to rodeos with Johnny. Actually, she drove alone, towing a horse trailer. Like most cowboys of his stature, Johnny flew from town to town. There’s some talk now that Johnny never had a pilot’s license, but he did have a plane, until the day he piled it up in a field. Everyone saw the plane go down and jumped in cars to get there, convinced they’d only find pieces of Johnny. But they got to the field and there he was, trotting through the grass with his saddle on his shoulder, wondering if he wasn’t too late to ride. Well, he did compete, and then he called Sue to say he wouldn’t be home that night. “Why not?” she said. He told her: “Uh, don’t have a ride.”
It was Sue who convinced him, finally, to give up the rodeo life. He thought a badge would bring a sure wage, and maybe a chance to shine, if things broke right. He was twenty-five when he signed up in Dillon, a town west of Ennis, and he went at it just like a rodeo. But things didn’t break quite right. See, a hippie came through town, so Patrolman France arrested him. Then the hippie got mouthy, so Johnny gave him a haircut. Well, the kid sued, the papers got it, and soon the chief wanted to see Patrolman France—privately. The chief, quite a modern police orator, said Johnny’d done great things in Lawn Forcement, that Lawn Forcement needed men like Johnny, that he’d hate to see Johnny leave the field, but he wouldn’t mind it, just now, if Johnny wanted to move on and do some forcement elsewhere. That’s how Johnny came to be a deputy sheriff, one of five on the Madison County force.
There, too, zeal brought public notice: he busted his own brother-in-law on a marijuana rap. Then there was the case of a boy whose daddy was a county commissioner. This boy was in a bar fight: Johnny had to sort it out. So he took both fighters to the edge of town and set them at each other: “Loser goes to jail.” He ended up busting the commissioner’s kid, which seemed overzealous to some. But it did get him a reputation. If some liked it and some didn’t, well, at least everybody knew it. He was elected sheriff in ’81 and has had lots of cases, but nothing so big or worrisome as the hunt for Dan and Don Nichols.
But wait. Sue’s got a newsclip here from her stack in the boot box in the closet:
This was when Johnny was flying one day, with the fellow who’d taught him. They’re up in a Cessna 210, a little single-engine job with retracting landing gear. They’re in for a landing at Dillon and they flick down the wheels and—damn!—one side won’t come down. It’s the gear. The wheel just hangs out at a useless 45-degree angle. It won’t lock down, no matter how many times they flip it up and back. Luckily, they’ve got some fuel. So they start doing rolls and dives and things that a Cessna shouldn’t do, trying to shake this gear down so they can land. The fellows at air traffic control don’t know what to do either, so they call Cessna. The folks at Cessna don’t know what to do, so they suggest belly-landing. Well, Johnny and his friend don’t have so many planes, so they do more loops and dives, trying to shake the gear loose. Well, it looks bad. They talk it over. Johnny climbs out of the plane, locks his hands around the wheel strut. Then, with wind blowing him out horizontal under the wing, he hooks a boot on that balky wheel, kicks the mother home. Climbs back in. Lands the plane.
Ride ‘em Johnny.
Through the summer, leads came fast. The cowboys at Windy Water Ranch told Johnny that Don and Dan used to visit the ranch’s cabin on the high pastureland. Cowboys would come in and find the stove hot, some food gone—but the place would be clean, and Don always left firewood. Then, a few years back, odd warnings began to appear on the cabin walls: CATTLE RUINING THE FOREST…Demands that the cattle be removed. Then the cabin burned down. When the cowboys moved up the ridge to Cherry Creek Ranger Station, the warnings got stranger—SHITTING IN MY FOREST—then the station burned down.
One outfitter told Sheriff Onstad that he’d met Don several times through the years. Once they shared lunch, and Don did some shooting to show off his old Sako rifle: Don’s eye was good, but his speed was amazing. He’d just turn, fire, and keep firing—and he shot for the head.
By autumn the law knew how Don loved pancakes, how Don snared squirrels, how they made three-rock campfires, how they leveled out a bed, even how Don always wore his hat on account of he was going bald. This was the kind of patient police work that should have brought a capture. Seemed it would, a dozen times. Jay Cosgrove, deputy at Big Sky, got a call one night: a lone young man with a backpack was crossing the bridge past the condos, making for the highway. Jay threw on pants, ran for his car. He drove till dawn—never saw a soul. Then Sheriff Onstad got a call: a country shopkeeper had found in his till a check from Nichols. Deputies took the check, raced for the bank in Three Forks. There, they found the account—of someone named Donna Nichols.
Onstad got another call that he passed on to Johnny. It was a South Dakota psychic: “I never called police before. But I saw those men in People,” she said, “and I’ve had visions. They are underground…yes, perhaps a cave…and three words keep coming to me: yellow, medicine, and thief.”
Johnny mused it, came up dry. He called a friend, Dave Wing, a Forest Service officer: “Dave, know any hills, creeks, or caves by name of Yellow, Medicine, or Thief?” Wing arrived at Johnny’s house with a briefcase full of maps and photos. The aerial shots were so sharp they could see every boghole. But they had a thousand miles to scan and no idea what to look for. Johnny couldn’t sit still. He walked his yard, staring at maps like he could burn holes in them. Next day, he was asking old-timers: “Yellow? Medicine? Thief?” He had the court staff digging through the old Virginia City mining claims. In a couple of days he found it: an old mine called the Sulfurette. “Hmm, yellow medicine.” And damn if the next mine wasn’t the Medico. Then he checked the owner: Jesse James Barfield. “That’s my thief!”
Johnny felt so right about this, he took along the D.A.—might have to read someone his rights. He took a county deputy, his friend Dave Wing, and Bernie Hubley of the FBI. The five men searched out the mine, but when they found it, Johnny didn’t want company. “Just cover me,” he said. “I’m thinking if I can get in the first word, maybe we can, uh, talk it out.” Johnny holstered his Magnum, went at the mine showing both hands empty. There was no sound on the hillside. The mouth of the mine showed no tracks. But Johnny slithered into the shaft, crawled five hundred feet into the earth. The four other men moved in on the mouth, straining to hear something. All they heard, at last, was soft scraping, as Johnny emerged, black dust and sweat caked on his face, bleak disappointment in his eyes. The five men left the mine in silence. “Lotta times,” recalls Dave Wing, “nothing needed to be said.”
On Johnny’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary he left Sue at home to join Sheriff Onstad’s midnight assault on two suspect caves. But Johnny was out of place, out of sorts, with a dozen men and $70,000 in equipment. He couldn’t see through the fancy night-vision scopes. He fell and sprained a finger. He couldn’t work the fussy federal radios. Neither he nor anyone else took a shot with the Army M-16s.
No, Johnny liked to hunt alone, nosing up Beartrap Canyon, looking for broken bush tips, cracks in mud, smudges on rock. He hunted Don and Dan like he would a big elk. Sometimes he didn’t even hunt, just went out on the land, alone with his thoughts and the mountains. Got so he couldn’t even make the weekly call he’d promised Sheriff Onstad. Got to the point where Onstad boiled over, cornered Johnny, bawled him out. “You just can’t,” Onstad said, “run something this big out of your hip pocket.”
Soon after that, Jan Swenson showed up to tell Johnny he really must learn about search-and-rescue, some modern methods, some system for the mountains. She pointed out that she helped organize Sheriff Onstad’s Nordic Ski Search and Rescue. She said she’d teach Johnny how to handle these cases. What Jan meant was that her daughter might not have been shot if Johnny had launched a night search—it ate her insides each time Kari cried—but Jan wouldn’t come out and say that. What Johnny meant was no one might have got shot, Al Goldstein might be alive today, and he, Johnny France, might not have to face two men with nothing more to lose, if she and her New West friends hadn’t filled up the woods with amateurs. Johnny might have said that he knew the mountains as she never would—not from ski reports, avalanche charts, MSU studies, but from living where the mountains made weather, gave water, bred the summer grass that was life. But Johnny wouldn’t come out and say that. So he and Jan just snarled at each other, then parted ways.
So some nights, as he lay awake, Johnny threw in some speeches to the Swensons, between the speeches to Don and Dan Nichols that he’d practiced so often in his head. How he’d talk Don and Dan into surrender, how he’d made Don see the boy must have a life, how he’d catch the boy alone and talk him out of the woods, how the boy might leave his father and give up—no, that would be too sweet, too easy. No, he’d have to spot their camp, sneak in, get the drop, have his say, take their guns, bring them in…and he could, he would, because he knew his man, because he knew where the grouse would be in the fall, where the game pawed to feed in the winter, where the wind blew the hills bare of snow, where the caves went deep in the side of the ridge, where the cave…and Johnny knows they’re in there, in the cave, and he comes on it, up a rocky hill, black hole in the earth, he must enter, in the blackness, and he can’t see for spots in his eyes, but they’re in there, he can feel them, and he’s framed in the light of the cave mouth, and he reaches for his gun, it fills his hand, he pulls… He always woke when the shooting began. And in the morning Sue would find the bedclothes kicked into knots, on the floor, and she’d know: Johnny’d had another bad night.
Now his ’53 Jeep bounced up the ridge on the Shelton ranch, the old Flying D. He’d known this range for thirty years, punched cattle here as a boy. The lines at his eyes seemed to ease with each mile he put between him and the highway. He’d brought along a friend to check an old mine and one lonely cabin—two placed Don and Dan might hole up, when snow hit.
Well, Johnny found the cabin, but it wasn’t lonely. Two men were there, building a porch. They were from Vermont—came out when their state got too crowded with strangers—been coming out for years. They’d heard of a mine, just around the roll of the ridge, down the draw a bit. So Johnny stalked down the slope in his boots, around the ridge, then up in case he’d missed it, and down through aspen to the creek at the base, then up again, and never saw a mine. So he started over, but he knew there wouldn’t be much to see. It’s only movies that show a mine with a sign and a big stone portico. Johnny was hunting a pile of dirt, maybe overgrown, maybe two feet high. That was all a mine showed in old Montana. He couldn’t find it. He was tired, out of ideas. He went to his Jeep, raised a hand toward the cabin, and made for the rutted track through the woods. He slammed on the brakes.
“There.” He was pointing at a flat spot just off the track. Johnny said only man could have made it. There is no flatland here. “Gotta be the miner’s road.” He was out of the Jeep, into the woods, making time in his high-heeled boots. The land stayed level, wound through young trees, then out to a steep, grassy slope. There, sure enough, were the boards of the cabin, collapsed in grass, pale gray with weather and spotted brown where the heads of hand-hewn nails spread their rust. Johnny looked down the slope. His eyes fixed on the mound of spoil. He looped around in the grass, flanking the mine mouth, slow, quiet now, crouching a little. His right hand came across his chest and pulled the long barrel of the Magnum clear. His left hand was splayed, hanging down, palm back: Stay clear—I’ll do this alone. Johnny looped thirty yards to the left, below the mound, then he turned and picked up speed. He came at the mine, Magnum ready. His last step brought him to the mouth on both feet, solid in the grass.
His gun hand dropped. There was no mine. Just a caved-in swale of dirt and two rods poking out of the earth. Johnny drew a long breath. “Collapsed.” His face was wet. It cost him effort to shift his feet. He holstered his gun, flicked a hand at the rusty iron bars in the soil. “Track for the one car. Probably still in there.” He nudged with a foot at a busted-out bucket, moving easier now, down the slope—more old gear in the grass. “Huh, wheelbarrow.” Solid iron and rust. He heaved it upright, swiveled, straightened, gazed out the canyon to Beartrap Creek, and beyond to the high ground of Cowboy Heaven. Don and Dan were out there. He could feel them. He’d track them down. No man could pass without a trace. Not in Montana. Not since the old days. And these weren’t the old days. Johnny knew that.
“You know,” he said to his boots, “I’m thinking, uh, my wife, Sue, she’d really like that wheelbarrow….” No, these weren’t the old days. He and his friend huffed the iron wheelbarrow up the ridge, lashed it onto the Jeep. Johnny drove straight home with Sue’s new planter. No, he hadn’t lived near the New West for nothing.
“Right now we’re just hoping for deep snow,” Johnny was saying by October. “The weather gets tough and the snow gets deep, and they can’t move. They’ll have to come down. I don’t think man or beast can survive up there. Winter changes everything.”
Winter is an event here. Even strangers win some respect—Can’t be all bad—just by staying through one. Now snow blew to twenty-foot drifts in high country, and still the law had no luck. November drew near, cold below zero—Be thirty below, up the ridge—and still Don and Dan stuck it out. Around Madison County stoves, men said their names and appended as a title, a badge, “tough sonsabitches.” In one house on Jack Creek Road, a rancher, call him Ed, told his wife:
“That ol’ Don, sonofabitch knows what he’s doing. Like to shake his hand.”
“What? He didn’t do nothin’! Some sonofabitch comes at me with a gun, I’m gonna blow him away, too.”
“But the girl! They took that girl, tied her up!”
“That’s right. Now, you tell me who the hell carries a chain in the woods. Where’d they get that chain? Girl musta brought it. She was visitin’ with ‘em. I tell you, that girl is kinky!”
Now the law had to fight for leads. One outfitter found a camp in timber—a Nichols camp, with a fresh three-rock campfire. He told the hunters he was guiding: “Don’t worry about reporting that.” And he never told the law anything.
Another hunting guide, Tom Heintz, stumbled straight onto Don and Dan at their camp. They were cooking squirrel stew. “Fellows, I know who you are,” Heintz said. “I don’t mean you any harm.” Don wanted to know what day it was. Dan wanted to know if the girl was alive. Father and son wondered what the world thought of them. “I told them,” Heintz recalled later, “there had been an outcry, but then the world recognized that what started out as a good idea—trying to get Danny a wife—had blown up in their faces and gotten worse and worse.”
Heintz recalled all this much later. That day in the woods, he walked away and didn’t hurry to tell anyone. He waited three days to report the sighting. “They’re my neighbors out there,” said Junior Mountain Man Heintz. “It’s not my fight.”
December 13, cold and wet snow: the first day so wintry that Roland Moore rode out to his stock tank to break ice. He might have waited a day, but that was not his way. There’d been little left to chance on the old Shirley ranch, since he married Forrest and Betsy’s daughter. Moore was of the old law and life. That’s why he stopped when he saw the smoke. “The ground is mine. I pay taxes on it. I labor over it. I want to know who’s on my land.”
The smoke came from the slope above the river. It might be Christmas-tree hunters—that would be all right. Then again, it might be poachers, or worse. Moore rode to the highway to see if there was a car below. No car. His suspicion grew. He was unarmed. So he rode home to call Virginia City, to ask for his foster brother-in-law. Roland asked the dispatcher: Where is Johnny?
Johnny was gone, over the ridge, to Bozeman, for repairs on his snowmobile. So Moore had another look around. He drove the highway to see if tracks led up the ridge toward the smoke. No tracks. Now Moore knew it was worse than poachers. He drove across the river, opposite the ridge. He took out field glasses, scanned the land. There was a man on the ridge. He had binoculars, too. Looked straight at Moore. Then ran for cover.
Moore raced home, called for Johnny. Johnny was still out of contact. Moore talked to FBI men in Butte, who called Sheriff Onstad in Bozeman, who called for deputies, cars, aircraft…
Everyone got there by 4:00 P.M. Johnny had ahold of a snowmobile. The law hoped to circle the ridge. Johnny had the road in front. Only an hour until dark. Johnny got on the radio: “I think I’ll go up, uh, see if I cut a track.” He fired up the Arctic Cat.
He cut their track—straight up. The wind blew stronger, but the wet snow held footprints. Johnny roared up the ridge.
The snowmobile hit rock. Johnny heard it grind; he cut the motor. “I’ll just, uh, see which way…” he said on the radio. He started on foot up a ragged draw. Snow and rock made him slow. He heard a plane circling, searching. “Well, that’ll make noise. Keep ‘em looking up.” Johnny slogged straight up. Wind from the top, twenty miles an hour, stung his faced, but he was sweating in his white snowsuit. He hoped it made him look like a coyote hunter, out for bounties. But the suit was heavy. Snow was wet, thick, slowing his legs. Breathing was labored. He stopped to rest….”Don’t just stand there…dammit, get moving!” It was the same rocky draw where he’d cried in front of his uncle Joe, thirty-six years before.
Johnny got moving. Steady, now. He switched his rifle to his right hand, radio left. He saw the tracks doubling back, then starting up again. They were checking in case they were trailed. He lifted his radio: “I’m awful close,” he breathed. “So close, their tracks are steaming.” He was near the top, turned the radio off. There was a big juniper at the head of the draw. Tracks went to the right of the tree. He had a hunch. He went to the left.
And there they were. Just below him, under a big Douglas fir. They had venison cooking. They looked up at the plane, didn’t see him. Johnny shifted his rifle. The kid turned first. A little cry escaped him. But Johnny got the first few words in: “Uh, seen any coyotes?”
Don dropped the skillet, jumped into a crouch, went for his gun. But Johnny was moving. He dropped behind a stump, raised his rifle, looking down the barrel at Don. “Don’t do anything stupid, Don. Don’t make me kill you.”
Don had his hands on his gun, but Johnny had the drop. Talking fast now: “I’m the law. Don’t make me kill you and Dan.” Don tried to say something, but noise in the sky drowned him out. Helicopter… Johnny kept talking, had to talk them in: “Give that boy a chance…. I got no desire to kill you, ‘less you make me…. Give the boy a chance for a life, Don.”
Don was trying to speak again. Johnny only half heard him: “…that a guarantee?”
Johnny talked down his gun barrel: “Yuh, and I guarantee a warm bed, and warm water, and food…”
“Don’ care about food….”
“…and help for the boy, Don. They boy, uh, this is no place for him to die…”
Johnny saw it. The air went out of the man. Don Nichols seemed to sag. He said: “What do you want me to do?”
“Lay that rifle back against the tree and step out with Danny there….”
Johnny felt in the snow for his radio. He turned it on, heard Onstad’s voice”…don’t know where! I can’t make contact!”
Johnny pushed the button, broke in: “Uh, I got two guys here need a ride….” Onstad’s voice: “Repeat. Ten-nine. John F. Ten-nine!”
“Two, uh, fellows, need a ride….”
“Johnny! Who’ve you got?”
“Well, uh, Don and Dan Nichols.”
Johnny turned down Good Morning America, and the Today show. His friends took him hunting in Kansas instead. Down there, of course, the Kansas City Star found his motel. But he only gave them a little time. Heck, he was page 1 in the Washington Post. That was just the start. Studios were calling, and writers, and agents. Sue got upset when it came clear they couldn’t please everyone. Johnny tried to laugh it off.
In his basement office in Virginia City, he thumbed through the piles of mail. “Look at this one.”
TO JOHNNY FRANCE
MOUNTAIN MAN SHERIFF
“Now isn’t that just like people to get it screwed up?”
No, Johnny sure as hell wasn’t from Bozeman. That was clear from the start. And now Sheriff Onstad was in the papers, calling Johnny a “grandstander,” a “Hollywood hero.” He said Johnny could have had help just by asking, but he wanted to grab the credit. Then Bob Swenson was in the paper, with a litany of Johnny’s sins against the New West: failure of leadership, improper training, “lack of communication, cooperation and coordination from Madison County for motives or reasons not entirely clear.” Jan Swenson was out there, talking Johnny down privately and with great force. She tended to rank him one cut above “The Creeps,” Don and Dan, and as for them, Jan said simply: “I’m a good shot, too. If they walk out of that courthouse, they’re dead.”
Don and Dan stayed safe in jail, clean and shaved, eating double dinners. Dan thumbed at picture magazines from the prison library. Don relaxed with the New Yorker. Don told relatives that he was never cold: “Only once, in jail, when the heat went off.” He said he couldn’t talk about the case. “But what the papers are writing is the biggest pack of b.s. I ever heard.” The legislature of Montana enacted a new law to keep him from profiting from his own version of the story.
The judge at Don and Dan’s case did his best to hush up the rest. He slapped a gag order on Don and Dan, all witnesses, and all investigators. There were four TV cameras and a few shutters clicking as Don and Dan politely pleaded innocent. “I’m not sure,” said one of their court-appointed lawyers, “we can handle all this publicity.” Judge Frank Davis set separate trial dates for father and son. He looked balefully at the cameras. His hands shook.
It was supposed to be clean, quick, and quiet from that point. But the judge couldn’t restrain Ronald Reagan, whose minions sent an invitation to Johnny and Sue to attend the inauguration. So Sue searched for three days for a western-style tuxedo. And Johnny talked to the papers again. He didn’t mind.
And nobody reckoned on Kari Swenson getting back to the ski trail so fast and so strong. She went to Canada, won a gold medal and her old spot on the U.S. biathlon team. She was back on the sports page. It was only her mom who said she’d never compete again.
And lots of cameras were back for the trials, last summer. Judge Davis tried to keep them out of court, but there were photos of Dan’s big grin when the Madison County jurors ignored state law to let him off on Al Goldstein’s murder; they got him only for kidnap and misdemeanor assault. The old man got nailed for kidnap, aggravated assault, and murder. He could get 140 years. But he wasn’t sniveling, no. Old Don said flat-out that he took the girl for both him and his son. Didn’t mind who knew it. And the chain? He’d been ready with a chain since 1978. That part was on TV ten times.
And, hell, you can’t stop a man from telling the truth about something he lived through. Not forever, anyway. Last time I saw Johnny, he was picking a ghostwriter for his book. He was signing on an agent from William Morris. He was wondering whether he’d retain script control. And Sue had a glossy brochure about new rustic log houses. The one she picked out was a beauty, a big one, an A-frame with picture windows for the New West view. And around the second story, there’d be a wide sun deck. Yuh, Johnny said, that’ll be for the, uh, hot tub.
[Photo Credits: Meredith Wright, Blood of the Young, Running Amuck, Dan Routh, Egil Bjarki, Bozeman Daily Chronicle…featured image by artist David Lemon. Click here for more. And a special thanks to Dina Colarossi for transcribing this piece.]