Jack Lantz is a West Virginian by birth, proud of his home state like most mountaineers, but even he knows it has its shortcomings.

"Some of those old hillbillies would burn a tree down just to catch a squirrel," he said last week after a week-long bad scene on the ridgetops.

Lantz is a Fairfax policeman. He and his lifelong friend, Bud Wood, also a native West Virginian, go home to the deepest wilderness of the Monongahela. National Forest every year to pursue trophy-size whitetail deer.

They found a spot ten years ago that was so remote they could hunt all week without seeing a soul or hearing a shot. Wild country, 4,700 feet straight up near Cheat Mountain.

For nine years they hunted it without a breath of trouble. They came home with huge deer (Lantz' biggest was a 13-pointer that weighed 220 pounds) and grizzled growths of ice-coated beard.

They hunted in waist-deep snow and slept in a canvas tent on the mountaintop. They searched for record-size bucks so hard the first year that they lost 15 pounds a piece.

The idea: "The deer have such remoteness, such great cover," said Lantz. "But the winters are so severe only the strongest, biggest and smartest survive. That's what we're hunting for. It's just you and the deer. There's no one else pushing them or bothering them."

Or so it was.

Wood and Lantz are back in the Virginia suburbs now. They both found their deer again this year. But they came back with other memories this time, too -- memories of a string of Laurel and Hardy foulups, sleepless nights, ripoffs and double crosses.

They left Fairfax at 4 a.m. the Thursday before deer season began, setting aside four days to scout and establish camp.

Camp is two miles from where the Blazer could carry them. Shortly before noon Lantz was fording a stream in the 20-degree cold, jumping from rock to rock with a hundred-pound pack on his back.

He missed a rock and went sprawling, back first, into three feet of shock-cold water. Wood hauled him out and they beat a half-frozen path the final mile to the camp, shivering.

Wood made tea to warm his partner up while Lantz lay on the floor of the lean-to. A cupful of the boiling water overturned and spilled down Lantz' arm, producing puffy blisters.

They pressed on.

On Sunday they made a final scouting trip to pinpoint the deer before the opener. They left camp at noon and were back at 1. They found the door ajar.

"The guns," Lantz shouted.

Gone.

They hiked out to the valley and began haranguing campers to see if they could unearth the stolen rifles. No luck.

"At 4 o'clock we sat down and made a decision. It wasn't going to ruin our hunt," Lantz said. "I called my wife, Alice, and told her I'd meet her in Strasburg if she'd bring two more rifles."

The hapless hunters blew out a new rear tire on their way down the mountain. They Didn't get to Strasburg until 8, they were back at the mountain at midnight and back into camp at 1:30 a.m. with a pair of rifles They'd never fired before.

They set the clock for 4:30, to be up and in the deer stands before first light.

It was a pitch-black mile from camp to the deer stands. Somewhere along the way in his hazy state Lantz lost his bullets. He climbed the tree stand and reached in his pocket before he discovered it. It was already growing light.

He made for camp again, and as he walked he heard Wood shouting in the woods. His partner was lost. He couldn't find his stand.

They regrouped, got bullets, and were on their stands at 7 a.m., about two hours late.

No matter. Two bucks crossed their paths and the hunt was done.

They stayed around camp for two more days, hoping to find the rifle thief. Failing in that they packed out, and when they got to the Blazer they found that someone had siphoned 26 gallons of fuel from it.

"We had to coast back to Elkins," said Lantz.

So it goes in the mountains, where frontier law still holds. Lantz was so happy to get home that he jumped out of the truck, twisting his ankle, banged into a brick wall and slashed his knee open. It took three stitches to close the wound.

"My parents say there's a message in all this," said Lantz. "They say the mountain is saying, 'Don't come back.'"

He's not listening. He and Wood will be back in the deep woods as soon as the snow clears in the spring. They'll build a new camp, this time another mile deeper in the woods. Where no one can find them.