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.