Life Beyond The Freemen Compound

In years to come, when folks in Jordan, Mont., gather for rodeos and other displays of traditional Wild West culture, those with an ironic sense of humor may want to add a surreal touch by inviting 100 armed FBI agents and some 300 journalists.

It will be a reminder of the time when the late 20th century clashed with the late 19th century over a band of armed, antigovernment malcontents now known around the world as the "freemen." In fact, one might say, this town of 450 people - the main metropolis in a sprawling county of just 1,500 - has had to undergo its own "tale of two cities" lately.

One is the story of a tough way of life that few people in 1996 could imagine. It's a story of fighting one's way home eight miles on foot through a killer storm (wind chill: 74 degrees below zero) after checking cattle, as Ross Childers did once. Of Mr. Childers' wife and ranch partner, Kelly, rushing new-born calves into the house in the middle of the night into a bathtub full of hot water to prevent their freezing.

Of Chan and Nolan, the Childerses' son and daughter, riding horseback to a grade school with a total enrollment of nine students. Of being driven 85 miles to play a Little League game in the next town. Of mounting up immediately after dangerous and sometimes injurious "horse wrecks" - because that's what you've always been told to do.

The other story is of a modern invasion by powerful institutions: the federal government, the international news media, and the money that both can spend trying to resolve (or report on) a potentially dangerous situation.

There are two kinds of vehicles in Jordan these days: pickup trucks, which the locals drive, and spiffy four-wheel-drive Jeeps and Ford Explorers, which FBI agents and the press drive. The two motels in town are completely filled with FBI. At the Hell Creek Bar, the souvenir T-shirts are just about sold out, and the list of journalists who've stopped here runs 14 pages.

"We stopped counting at page 12, which was 300, so it's probably up to 370 by now," says the proprietor. "You're new here, aren't you?" she asks, eyeballing a reporter jotting in a notebook. "The rule here is no quotes.

"The last guy who quoted me got thrown out and hasn't been back," she adds with a definite no-nonsense tone. Point taken. Quotes are easy; finding a decent meal in this sparse territory isn't.

The economy here is receiving a tremendous spike. The FBI is spending $7,400 a day just to house and feed its agents here. Note: Tracking down that figure took at least four phone calls.

Sue O'Connell of the Montana attorney general's office says the state has spent "$863,000 so far" on its efforts to dislodge the freemen - mostly to send highway patrol officers for traffic control.

CBS has taken over the back room at QD's Cafe. Another TV network, Fox News, has leased a nearby ranch house for $3,000 a week. Then there's all the overtime for reporters, producers, and technicians, plus travel expenses to rotate crews in and out and the cost of leasing equipment. "We try to keep the overall costs to under $15,000 a day," says one television newsman.

"There have been a few benefits," acknowledges local lawyer and part-time Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion. "But there's also been a lot of inconvenience for farmers and ranchers who have to go through FBI check points several times a day."

Journalists arriving here must sign a release form acknowledging that they are "entering an area which is considered extremely dangerous."

"Thank you sir, and be careful," says special agent W.A. Pitt after I signed the form at the first checkpoint. But like war, it's been hours (sometimes days) of boredom interspersed with moments of excitement.

Standing up the road from the entrance to the freemen compound the other day, an FBI SWAT team member, donning black jeans and jacket, sidearm, extra ammo clips, and a radio, a Montana highway patrolman, and several journalists swapped stories to pass the time.

The reporters based in Los Angeles had covered the O.J. Simpson trial. The FBI agent had been part of an under-cover operation that recently busted a gang of New Orleans police officers who had been major drug dealers. He'd been at Waco, Texas, when the attempt to force an end to the standoff with the Branch Davidian cult ended in heavy loss of life. "I lost three of my buddies there," the agent said.

Then the police and news-team radios began crackling with reports of movement inside the freemen compound: "Some people are coming out!"

Gloria Ward, her daughters, Courtnie and Jaylynn, and common-law husband, Elwin - the first people to leave the compound since April - swept by in the back of a FBI Chevy Suburban. Falling in behind the procession of two other FBI vehicles and a Montana Highway Patrol car, journalists kept pace at 65 miles an hour up the unpaved road toward FBI headquarters at the Garfield County fairgrounds.

Try steering with your knees at that speed on gravel while dialing out on your cellular phone for a live radio broadcast - only to have the signal keep fading out as the road dips below a line of hills. Until the freemen saga, in fact, there was no cell-phone service here; it was hastily added to accommodate journalists trying to report breaking developments.

Covering the story can be a curious, amusing, and sometimes disconcerting mix of happenings and impressions.

I'm staying at the "7-Bar-V" ranch and outfitting business, the Childers place just five miles from the freemen compound. There's one phone line. When a call comes in for me, Mrs. Childers hollers across the 5-acre pond, and I run from my cabin to the hunting lodge to pick up the phone. When Sherry Matteucci, the US attorney for Montana, faxed a statement after the Ward family had left the freemen compound, 13-year-old Nolan Childers rowed across the pond to deliver it.

On their breaks, FBI agents have come here, their sidearms still strapped on, to fish for rainbow trout or sunbathe and read novels. One young agent is growing a beard. "I'll wear it into the office for one day when I get back to New Orleans, then shave it off," he says. Four agents went for a horseback ride and came back walking gingerly due to saddle sores. They're tough, but not used to the old-West mode of travel still part of the daily routine in eastern Montana.

Sorting out relationships and attitudes around Jordan will be hard in the post-freemen era. Some inside the compound have been relatives, good friends, and neighbors of those outside. But most people around here agree with Mrs. Childers when she says, "Right's right and wrong's wrong, and if these people get away with it, it's going to happen all over the United States and not just in rural areas."

Still, one presumes that when the press and law-enforcement hordes leave, life here will return to normal. People will still buy things on account at Ryan's Grocery in Jordan. They'll walk into any business and pay with blank counter checks from the Garfield County Bank - the only one here. Just pick up the pad of blank checks next to any cash register and fill in your own account number. They'll see the dentist the one day every two weeks he's in town. They'll continue to support seven rural grade schools, five of which have just one teacher.

Next weekend is a bronc ride and all-class high school reunion. There are just 92 students in the high school. Some live so far out that they board in town with other families, as sophomore Chan Childers did last year.

The economics of ranching make it harder to support a family. Like rural areas around the West, some of the younger generation are eager to get away, and small population centers are getting even smaller.

"People are having smaller families, and the young people aren't staying here," Mrs. Childers says.

Nolan (an ace Little Leaguer named after pitcher Nolan Ryan) is as familiar with the back of a horse as most kids are with a bike seat. She points to the hills where she shot a deer last fall. But she has an interest in theater too, and who knows where that will lead.

For his part, her older brother, Chan, is determined to go to college and continue ranching. So far, at least, there is no sign that he has any interest in becoming an FBI agent or a journalist.

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