Artie Oden raked and poked the mud in a cornfield along the South Branch of the Potomac River here today, looking for his friends.

The body of Oden's brother, Paul, 20, was found in the same spot Saturday, but his two companions have not been seen since they were swept away from their deer hunting party by last week's flood waters that have already claimed 31 lives in the state, with 17 still missing. In Virginia, at least 20 have died.

"Hey Artie! Recognize this?" someone yelled, holding up a muddy rubber boot. "Yeah," Oden said softly, as he leaned on his rake and looked the other way while the others intensified their digging. But all they found was more mud.

While Oden, 37, and his small band poked and dug, an organized search party made up of National Guardsmen, firefighters, the mayor of Romney -- a small city near here -- state police and paramedics fanned out along the banks of the river.

The Romney Volunteer Fire Department called for help from its neighbors earlier this week, and the call was answered swiftly. Prince William, Fairfax, Loudoun and Frederick counties in Virginia and Hampshire County in West Virginia supplied boats, four-wheel-drive vehicles and muscle.

The body search started in the Milleson Mill Campgrounds area by the river. "That's where the fellows were camping; that's where the fellows were last seen," said Trooper David B. Burkhart, who directed the search.

The scene looked more like the aftermath of a tornado than a flood, and the natural order was transposed: bluegill in the cornfields and corn in the river. Mattresses, Igloo coolers and lawn chairs hung from trees like Christmas ornaments. And everywhere there was mud.

With a rake in one hand and a metal pole in the other, Oden stabbed determinedly but carefully at the gooey mud, sometimes sinking in it to his knees.

Oden, his brother and a group of friends, all from Brunswick, Md., were in the area on a hunting trip when the flood hit.

The group was camped by the river when the water started rising rapidly. One of the men, Billy McKimmey, 43, couldn't swim, so his friends tried to push him to safety in a boat, said Oden's wife, Poppie, 37.

But the water surged and the Oden brothers, McKimmey and Leonard Hammon, in his 50s, were swept away, Poppie Oden said. Other members of the group reached safety.

The body of Paul Oden was found Saturday. Artie Oden was swept three miles down the river, at one point clinging to a tree.

"He found a plastic Sprite bottle, blew air in it and stuffed it in his shirt," his wife said. "He said that's the only thing that kept him above water."

Oden eventually was rescued from a rooftop three miles away, but he was still too upset to talk about it yesterday.

In addition to looking for the bodies of his friends, Oden came for another reason, his wife said. "He wants to find the spot [where he was rescued] so he can understand it."

The biggest obstacle was the mud, which felt more like quicksand at times to searchers. If they paused too long in one spot, they sank.

The mission of the day was chillingly simple: see and smell. "We think that they'll [the bodies] probably be in the trees," Trooper Burkhart said. "Everything would probably be above water now. We're hoping it is."

Larry Miller, 37, mayor of Romney -- "the oldest town in West Virginia" -- came prepared. He stocked his four-wheel-drive van with 15 body bags, bologna sandwiches and soft drinks.

"I hope we don't need that many" of the body bags, Miller said.

The flooding that turned 29 counties in the state into disaster areas particularly devastated three towns south of Romney, the mayor said.

"They [the bodies] would have come down this far," he said.

While the outlying areas of Hampshire County, where Romney is located, looked like a river bed, the town itself was spared.

So the town, known for its apples and peaches, became a disaster relief center of sorts. Running the show was Robert Shilling, the director of the Office of Emergency Services for the county.

The Romney Volunteer Fire Department has been transformed into a warehouse for supplies, with water bottles lined in rows beside the fire truck and bags of Pampers, brooms and Pine-Sol stacked behind it.

"We've got so many clothes . . . we can't process them all," Shilling said.

Meanwhile, only a few clothing items -- called "possibles" by searchers -- were spotted among the tangled trees that had been felled by the powerful, surging current.

But the searchers planned to keep looking.

"It's sad if you do find them," said Sgt. Greg Ferrell, 24, a National Guardsman directing searchers by walkie-talkie. "But it's worse if you don't. The family will never rest until the body is found."