Johnny France, the Montana sheriff who spent five months tracking two mountain men -- a father and son charged with murder -- through the rugged wilderness near Bozeman, said yesterday the first thing he did when he came upon them was ask if "they'd seen any coyotes around."

Don Nichols, 53, and his son Dan Nichols, 20, had been sought since July, when Kari Swenson, 23, a member of the U.S. women's biathlon team, was kidnaped as she jogged along a trail near the Big Sky vacation resort. Authorities said the father and son kidnaped Swenson to provide a wife for the younger Nichols, then shot and killed a man seeking to rescue her.

At a news conference in Virginia City, Mont., yesterday, an elated Madison County Sheriff France told reporters about his trek, which started on a snowmobile and ended with a four-mile hike on foot through the steep, wooded terrain, to their campsite and his single-handed capture of the two men.

"I snuck up on their campsite, dressed in white camouflage in the heavy snow, and from about 30 feet away I asked them if they'd seen any coyotes around," France said, adding that he hoped that the casual comment would reassure the men and avoid "spooking" them.

He said Don Nichols recognized him immediately and "said he thought I was awful dumb to come walking in there like that. But they had no idea I was there.

"I'd rehearsed this capture for a long time, and I knew that if I was too forceful as I approached, the fugitives might panic. I remembered that Alan Goldstein the would-be rescuer was shot and killed when he approached them with a drawn weapon and threatened them with force.

"When the Nicholses spotted me, Don jumped up and made a move towards his rifle. I told him not to do anything stupid. I yelled, 'Please don't make me kill you!'"

"He wanted to know what guarantees I could give him that I wouldn't shoot him. I said I wouldn't shoot him unless he made me. It was cold out there. They looked cold and I kept talking about the warm things I could promise him. I promised him a warm bed and warm food and warm water, and I emphasized warm."

France said that he approached the campsite five miles northeast of the small town of Norris about 4:45 p.m. MST as they were preparing dinner over a fire. "I had the drop on them," he said.

Using a radio, France called in his friend John Onstad, the Gallatin County sheriff, who was standing by with a helicopter. At gunpoint, France then marched the fugitives into a clearing where the helicopter landed to take them to jail.

Onstad, who spent about four hours with the father and son as they were taken to Virginia City and then to the Gallatin County Jail in Bozeman, told reporters yesterday, "About the first thing they said to me was, 'What kept you so long?'"

Onstad said the men were hungry and tattered, with trouser legs frozen to their skin.

Though the men were subdued, they talked openly about everything except the shootings and kidnaping, Onstad said. "They were very thankful they didn't get shot," he said. "They felt some fear that anybody coming in on them would shoot them."

"I had imagined this day for some time," said Onstad, whose search party found Swenson, and her dead rescuer, Alan Goldstein, on July 16. "But it was totally different from how I presumed they would act.

"I couldn't see them giving up without a fight. I didn't expect this day would come without somebody getting killed. I had characterized them as very vicious individuals, but that wasn't the case," he said.

The mountain men told him their philosophy of life, Onstad said, "about how they don't like ranchers, they don't like law enforcement people, but everyone they met they liked as an individual."

Mike Mitchell, an aide to France in the Madison County sheriff's office, said yesterday that the fugitive campsite was situated "less than a mile from the ranch were Johnny was raised. He knew that area." Both France and the older Nichols were graduated from the same high school and were acquainted with each other, Mitchell said.

He said that France, armed with a .45-cal. pistol and a .223-caliber Ruger Mini-14 rifle, had set off alone for the mountain, acting on a tip from a local rancher who reported having seen two men at a campfire while he was searching for missing livestock.

Mitchell said the father and son were bearded and looked thin from their months in the mountains, where there is a solid snow cover and temperatures of 50 degrees beow zero are not uncommon.

"They were fairly lightly dressed . . . . How they kept their ears warm, I don't know," he said, adding that their heads were covered only with cowboy hats.

Don Nichols, a former chemical engineer who spent 10 years working for Union Carbide in West Virginia, had been living year-round as a mountain man for more than 10 years in the rugged area west of Bozeman, where he reportedly had an elaborate network of gardens and supply caches.

The son had spent summers in the mountains with his father since 1971, when his parents were divorced, and had been living continuously with his father in mountain campsites since August 1983.

Authorities had announced after Swenson's rescue that the elder Nichols had hoped she would marry his son and join them in the mountains.

The shootings occurred when two rescuers from a ranch where Swenson was working came upon the Nichols' campsite a day after her disappearance. One rescuer was shot in the head and killed, allegedly by the elder Nichols, while the second rescuer escaped and went for help.

Swenson, who had been chained to a log, was shot in the chest, apparently accidentally, by the son. She has recovered and is in training for the biathlon event, which combines skiing and marksmanship, for the next winter Olympics.

After the campsite confrontation, the father and son then fled deep into the surrounding mountains, living on berries and game that they were able to trap or shoot.

Despite a massive manhunt -- which included special weapons teams, K9 dogs, lawmen on horseback and searches by helicopters and small planes -- the two vanished. But France, 44, who spends his spare time as an outfitter guiding hunters into the primitive mountains, said at the time: "In my own way, I'm a mountain man, too. It will take one to catch one. I'll get them."

The arrests represented a personal triumph for France, who searched the mountains, often alone and on his own time, at least twice a week since the kidnaping and shootings.

He had used his own horses, particularly a favorite named Bambino, and equipment since the sparsely populated county did not have sufficient funds to continue the search. Many law enforcement officials believed that the father and son had left the area, and possibly even the country, but France continued to insist that they were in the area.

France said he wanted to make the capture because he feared bounty hunters would enter the search after reward money was posted for information, apprehension and arrest of the two men.

"I didn't want the boy's situation jeopardized," France said. "No one knows Don's stability, and he does pretty bizarre things. We wanted to keep the boy alive."

Mitchell said the deputies in his office have responded to the arrests with "extreme elation. We're all just really hyper. This is the best damned Christmas gift any of us could have gotten."

The two men appeared briefly in court in Virginia City Thursday and then were taken to the jail in Bozeman.

They will face charges of homicide, aggravated assault, kidnaping, intimidation and misdemeanor assault when they are arraigned in Virginia City on Tuesday, the day the circuit judge holds court in Madison County