Just outside this quiet North Woods hamlet of 742 souls, the Embarrass River flows with whispering serenity out of giant red rimrock boulders and hardwood forests. Nearby, along the road leading to this bucolic scene, are incongruous signs: "Federal Agents Keep Out. Survivors will be prosecuted."

Last week, James P. Wickstrom, national director of counterinsurgency for the ultra-right Posse Comitatus, stepped from behind the boulders to talk about Jews and bankers and Communists and tax agents and drunken, traitorous congressmen. He said they are part of a dark conspiracy to bring down his America.

"What they are afraid of right now is full-fledged guerrilla warfare in this country and they don't have enough soldiers to handle it," he said. "They don't know how much they are hated."

For years, neighbors have awakened to the rattle of gunfire from inside this 600-acre compound known as Tigerton Dells. Some have seen men in camouflage suits darting from tree to tree. Others said the acreage is laced with tunnels, armaments and defensive emplacements.

Lately, light aircraft have been seen photographing Tigerton Dells at treetop level. Word is out that the authorities are about to hit the Dells, and it could be bloody.

Asked about this, Wickstrom smiled, but only below his blue, laser-beam eyes. "They sure know how to turn on the juice when a couple of their piggies get blown away," he said.

The Posse Comitatus--in Latin, the "power of the county"--is a loosely knit, ultra-right group that mixes bigotry with the Bible, tax rebellion with the plight of small farmers, the art of grenade-launching with the exploitation of sad and isolated malcontents unable to cope with a troubled and changing world. Almost anarchist, it rebels against the Internal Revenue Service, a favorite target. But it also rebels against the whole alphabet soup of government agencies--state, federal and local--that regulate modern America.

In Waitsburg, Wash., where another enclave is located, the local newspaper editor recently described the Posse as a group of people who can't cope with the modern world "and want to go back to 1810 where there aren't any people and you can go down to the White House and talk to the president on a Sunday afternoon."

The Posse is not new. It began at least 15 years ago in the far West and moved eastward through the Rockies and into the rich farmlands of the Midwest. It now has adherents in all states except Hawaii, its leaders say. But, except in little towns like Tigerton, it had gained little notice in the rest of the country until four months ago.

The Posse burst into national notoriety in a roar of gunfire when two lawmen were killed, 600 miles west of here in the frozen North Dakota plains just beyond the Continental Divide.

On the evening of Feb. 13, Gordon Kahl, 63, a tax protester, farmer and sometime Posse member, drove north up Rte. 30 after a meeting at Dr. Clarence Martin's clinic, where perhaps a dozen locals met to discuss what was wrong with their country. With Kahl were his son Yorie, 23, and a friend, Scott Faul, 29. Also with Kahl was his Ruger mini-14 rifle.

Kahl, a tailgunner in World War II, was seen by many in North Dakota as a strange fellow, virulently anti-Semitic and passionate about the "evils" of income tax, but a good neighbor and a good husband and father of six. In 1977 he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to a year in prison and five years' probation. When he got out he chose to ignore probation, just as he ignored his taxes.

The authorities also ignored him--for a while. But on Feb. 13 they decided to enforce the law in a manner that has raised questions among some of the local citizens.

Atop a small hill, Kahl met a police roadblock. Other police vehicles pulled up behind him. Kahl, his son and his friend leapt out of their car, guns in hand. For a few tense moments the antagonists stood 20 feet apart in a silent Western-style standoff. Then someone fired.

Yorie Kahl was said to be the first to fall, hit in the stomach, although evidence later showed his gun had been fired. Gordon Kahl, a crack shot, opened up with his mini-14.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Cheshire was hit by a mini-14 slug. Next to him, Deputy Sheriff Robert Kapp asked, "You hit bad?" The marshal replied, "No, not bad."

But a minute later he was dead; although the bullet had lodged in his flak jacket, its impact crushed all the bones in his chest. Within minutes, another law officer, Kenneth Muir, was dead and two were wounded.

Then Gordon Kahl reportedly walked calmly over to survey the scene, talking to some of the wounded, watching the others run. He drove his wounded son to Martin's clinic, where the doctor also was treating a wounded deputy.

"Was it worth it?" someone asked. "To me it was," Kahl replied. Then he disappeared and, to some folks in North Dakota, became a legend.

Two weeks ago, authorities tracked Kahl south, where he was holed up in a fortified house in the Ozarks. Kahl killed the county sheriff with a single shot to the head. Then the authorities gunned down Kahl with firepower that left his body charred almost beyond recognition and the Arkansas house in cinders.

Kahl's fiery death ended a struggle that had been foreshadowed at his 1977 trial, when he had worn a gold lapel button of a hangman's noose, the symbol of the Posse, to the courtroom.

The Posse's handbook says all power resides in the county sheriff. The handbook also says people have the right to dispose of the sheriff if he fails in his duty. Rebellious sheriffs, the handbook says, "shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown, as an example . . . ."

In the 15 years before the Kahl shootouts there had been showdowns and virulent rhetoric but no overt Posse violence. In small enclaves like Tigerton and Waitsburg, local citizens watched nervously and sometimes angrily as Posse members walked down main streets with sidearms strapped to their waists and as gunfire echoed in isolated outskirts.

Many law officers also watched, but tried to ignore them. In Wisconsin, a law officer wrote off Wickstrom and the Tigerton group as "just a bunch of aging juvenile delinquents."

FBI officials have cautioned the news media to be careful with the Posse story because most of the activity is "wild rhetoric more than wild violence." Federal officials have put the number of hard-core Posse members at 3,000, far below Wickstrom's figure of 3 million.

In Colorado, law enforcement officials said Posse members recently bought 30,000 rounds of semiautomatic ammunition from a sporting goods store. Elsewhere, officials report that the Posse is collecting rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, heavy-duty armor and other defensive equipment.

In Walla Walla, Wash., prosecuting attorney Arthur Eggers says the Posse "scares hell out of me." Eggers says he would rather deal with the convicts at nearby Walla Walla State Prison, one of the toughest penitentiaries in the country.

"At least the convicts know what the laws are," he said.

The son of a Lutheran pastor, Eggers says nothing frightens him more than "the mix of cultist, fundamentalist religion a Posse trademark and guns." What Eggers worries about is "one charismatic leader--and then they'll march."

Since the Kahl shootings, other western law enforcement officials have been meeting regularly to work out SWAT team procedures. Flak jackets and tear gas are becoming standard gear in western sheriffs' offices. The fears are growing on both sides.

One of the Posse's practices is to set up its own "townships"--the Township of Good Faith in southeastern Washington, for example, and Wickstrom's Constitution Township of Tigerton Dells. Members elect their own public officials, from foreign ambassadors to judges, and flood the local court system with harassment suits.

The Township of Good Faith is suing every judge in Walla Walla County. It also has filed a libel suit, in its own court, against a Seattle newspaper reporter.

Part of the "township game" also involves setting up a church, a ploy the Posse tries to use to avoid income taxes. The IRS does not look upon it with approval.

Despite the paramilitary training and the Kahl shootings, many of the Posse's members clearly are not violent, merely frustrated by government.

Alton Filan, 57, a member of the Posse and the Township of Good Faith, first ran into trouble with authorities 10 years ago when he bulldozed a stream on his property near Waitsburg during a flood. He was fined $200.

Until then Filan had been a quiet wheat farmer, a big stoical Norwegian who his friend, Richard Ray of nearby Dixie, says was "as hard to talk to as a fence post." No longer. Filan joined.

Filan stopped paying his water bills, ending with a $32 bill he still hasn't paid, despite a misdemeanor conviction for it and then a felony conviction for allegedly damaging a water line. He said he is ignoring the convictions "because this country has gone under communism and the judicial system is illegal."

Without water, Filan has stopped farming. Where he once piped in 30,000 gallons an hour to grow rich harvests of winter wheat, he now trucks in 3,000 gallons a month to keep the farmhouse and a tiny wilted garden going.

Filan is the "coroner" of the Township of Good Faith, although he says he never has had to perform any duties. Instead he sells bogus auto license plates that say "Posse--USA--militia" and hands out mock government Wanted posters for Jesus Christ, listing Christ's offenses against those alphabet-soup agencies.

"Wanted by the FDA for turning water into wine without a license," says one. "Wanted by the U.S. Coast Guard for walking on water without a life jacket," says another.

Filan said he is never going to pay that $32 water bill and probably will never farm again. He has bought a police scanner and said he hears his name on it whenever he goes near the local water works. Eggers, who prosecuted him, called the Posse Filan's "magnificent obsession," but it scares the prosecutor.

Along the Embarrass River here in Wisconsin, the authorities went after Wickstrom a week ago, convicting him of impersonating a judge, the office he holds in the "Constitution Township of Tigerton Dells." Now out on bail, he said he figures if "they" ever get him in the slammer, that's when they'll hit his encampment.

Will Tigerton Dells fight back? "What do you think?"

Does he have heavy arms and tunnels and defensive emplacements inside? "It's a church."

Would he take a reporter into the church? "You're the eyes and ears of the feds."

What would a reporter see that the cruising aircraft don't?

"I know your newspaper and I know about your owner," Wickstrom said. "I've got quite a dossier on Washington Post Co. board chairman Katharine Graham and she's about as American as Peter Pan. Peter Pan is not American."

Wickstrom said he wishes he could swat the pesky low-flying aircraft the same way he swats mosquitoes. "I'd like to see 'em burn," he said. "You can only push people so far before big trouble arrives."

"They're violating their own laws," Wickstrom said. "Bringing those aircraft in at treetop level, it's dangerous. We got children inside."

Next to him a Posse colleague introduced only as Ken interjected his only comment. "If we flew over one of their military installations," Ken said, "they'd shoot us down."

But not if you flew over one of their churches. "But I wouldn't fly over one of their churches," Wickstrom said. "It's rude."