Noel Ortez said he was awaiting the counterrevolutionary guerrillas who would show up any moment with "orders" for him to sneak back into Nicaragua to fight Sandinistas.

The lanky 18-year-old hardly had time to explain before a middle-aged Nicaraguan in a straw cowboy hat sidled up and dashed the macho talk, saying the guerrillas were not coming at all to this refugee center 20 miles from the border.

Ortez had arrived across the frontier less than a week earlier. He had not yet learned that Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary operations in Honduras were supposed to be secret. Travels along the border in search of the guerrillas showed, however, that most Nicaraguans and Hondurans have learned it well.

To an extraordinary degree, peasants in border villages exhibited embarrassed smiles when asked where the Nicaraguans were camped, saying they did not know. Some who later said they were willing to discuss the camps did so only after nervous glances at their husbands or wives.

The discretion is an on-site extension of Honduran official denials of Nicaraguan charges of cross-border harassment financed by the United States and facilitated by the Honduran Army -- as well as of insistence by the anti-Sandinista rebels themselves and clear evidence that cross-border raids take place. The U.S. policy is to refuse to comment on any possible role.

Yet Benjamin Ponce twisted out of a hammock strung across his veranda, and, with a pistol dangling at his side, explained to visitors at his coffee farm near El Jicarito that Nicaraguan commandos used only to "pass by" on their way to an attack.

Ponce said he did not know where the guerrillas came from and had no comment on claims by his neighbors--and by a Honduran soldier in the area--that the rebels used to sleep at Ponce's farm until they were ordered out three weeks ago.

Half an hour away by bucking jeep, the head farmer at La Varoma similarly had trouble understanding why neighbors should pinpoint his four-house village as one of the former hideouts. A bare-chested young man who walked out of the house with a hand grenade hanging from his belt quickly receded back into the shadows.

Filipe Castro, a Nicaraguan living in a cabin near Las Trojes, said only eight or 10 guerrillas remained at what had been a camp near the border hills. "They are taking care of a few things," he said. "That's all."

When inquiring foreigners asked Castro to take them to see, he shifted, saying no one remained, everyone having returned to Nicaragua to fight the Sandinistas.

Similarly, Castro's interest rose when someone asked about the well-being of "Danielito," a name given by Sandinista intelligence officers as a "North American" adviser for a Las Trojes training camp.

"You know Danielito?" Castro asked, beginning a smile. But he switched back to worry when it became apparent the visitors knew only Danielito's first name. By the time the conversation was over, Castro had insisted Danielito was Nicaraguan and long gone.