At 6 a.m. Monday it would be dark and exquisitely cold. Somehow the hardhunters in their longjohns and red insulated suits, after a breakfast of thick slabs of bacon and eggs over easy and the jam that West Virginians eat with everything, would make their way out the door and up the mountain, encumbered with 7 to 10 pounds of rifle, a thermos of coffee, a half-point of Virginia Gentlement, a folding Buck knife (de rigeur that season) and, maybe, a handgun tucked away some place. There are hard feelings on the slopes of Great South Mountain from time to time.

But Sunday night that was still to come. The dozen or so hardhunters who'd come from as far away as North Carolina lounged around the old farmhouse (said by some to be haunted) near Wardensville and talked. The subjects, not necessarily in that order, were wild turkeys and turkey calls, deer and last year's buck, the economics of getting a single hog to market, and the sisters from the third curve who'd shown up at the White Star Saturday night to look over - and perhaps dance with - the crowd of strangers, and many old faces, who were in town early.

Eventually - inevitably - the deck of diamondbacks came out. The kitchen table was cleared away and swabbed down and the heavy artillery of whiskey - the quarts and the half-gallon - found their way out of the duffle bags, and the reason for Sunday night began.

Now this is an enraging game, at times. For openers (no pun intended), it is played with a 5 and 10-cent limit, shifting at some time during the evening to 25 cents, which means that the tendency of some players is to call every bet, right down to the end. It is also a dealer's choice game, which means that if you do not care to play Night Baseball With a Blind Umpire or Split in the Ocean you will be sitting out half the hands. And further, anybody at this table ever seemed to have learned the wisdom of betting, calling, rasing or folding in turn.

It is, as they say, the only game in town. Or in the woods.

A further definition of this game: These are not your run-of-the-mill GS-umpteen bureaucrats gathering in somebody's townhouse for seven-card stud and a midnight break for a Georgetown-catered spread of salami and boiled ham and rye bread and potato salad. They are railroad men and heavy-equipment operators and carpenters and at least one union organizer and you see them wheeling six-to-a-car over West Virginia highways before daylight to get to a job 40 or 50 miles away, and some of them are active in the National Guard - yes, even without the draft - and they take that seriouly, too.

You also have to assume that these men have played poker from West Virginia to Iwo Jima, Korea and Japan, Saigon, on troopships, in barracks, construction camps, garages and an occasional latrine.

So as Sunday evening wore on I was streaking a bit, with five or six dollars' worth of change in change in front of me, and even staying in for an occasional hand of Doctor Pepper - you know, 10s, 2s and 4s wild.From time to time somebody would dip his fingers into the marvelous lemon meringue pie our hostess had left for us, but the smear soon blended into the pattern behind the king of diamonds, and it got to pushing on to 2 a.m. Reveille was at 5.

We dealt around, and the last hand came up, and whoever was dealing called straight seven-card stud, which meant a pretty good pot because it would virtually amount to showdown, with nobody dropping until the ultimate impossibility. A pair of aces could win.

I came in with something like a kind and a queen in the hole, with a jack up, and the next two cards gave me an ace and a 10, ring overwhelming evidence that I was beaten. I would not have folded looking at four hearts, for instance. But as it happened, nothing much showed - a pair here, a possible low straight there, like that, but the betting was strong and I was raising and the guy on my right was raising too, although by the sixth card he was showing only a low pair. I figured him for three of a kind, and began to count the pot, silently. there was, surprisingly, better than $5 in it.

As you know, there is a lot of hedging and dancing around after the last bet has been called, with a certain reluctance to show the cards, particulary on the part of somebody sitting there with a pair of deuces. So I was the first over, and announced, for better or for worse, that I had an ace-high straight.

Everybody folded, and said nothing, except the guy on my right, the brakeman, who turned his cards up and said, "Damn." He said all he had was a full house. I looked at his cards - as you recall they speak for themselves, whatever you say they are say they are - and he had a full house all right, maybe it was nines over sixes, I forgot. I looked at the pot, saying goodbye. He did the same thing, and as nobody said anything and nobody reached for the pot, it began to dawn on me, ever so slowly, and I looked over and saw the rifles against the wall and the knives on everbody's belt - this was a fleeting thing, this vision - and the other players were looking at me, and I thought, damn, why do I have to be the one to tell him. But I did.