The farmer was angry about what he had seen a few weeks before. Seven other men, country people like himself but members of the Sandinista militia, had had their throats slit on a mountain trail and "a lot of peasants" were saying the counterrevolutionaries had done it.

Now a group of contras who had just bought a cow from the man sat embarrassed as he harangued them. They denied they were responsible for the killing.

"Look, we're with you," said the 46-year-old peasant, motioning to a relative standing nearby. "I'm with you. He's with you. But when we see something like that we say better to stay away, because that sows terror." Even this diatribe, made with no apparent fear or reservations, was a reflection of the acceptance the troops of the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan Democratic Force find among the rugged dirt farmers of these harsh and lonely mountains in northern Nicaragua.

Many--the leadership claims a majority--of the counterrevolutionary soldiers come from backgrounds like theirs. Many are from these same hills.

"A screw-up like this," the peasant warned his friends in uniform, "and everything can fail."

In the six days another reporter and I spent traveling through this province with the U.S.-backed soldiers fighting to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government we saw a pattern of support for the contras by people with many grievances against the revolutionary government in Managua. "The outrages," one farmer called them.

Whether this kind of support can be found in the rest of the country remains a matter of conjecture among counterrevolutionary leaders. These men talk of having 10,000 or more soldiers in place and perhaps tens of thousands of civilians ready to rise up behind them. More conservative estimates by military officials who have worked with the counterrevolutionaries in neighboring Honduras put rebel troop strength at about 4,000 plus about half that many armed Miskito Indians on the Atlantic Coast.

No one can say with any real assurance where popular support will lie if the war spreads, but the counterrevolutionaries appear to be doing everything they can to cultivate it. They believe, moreover, that they have distinct advantages over the Sandinistas in rural areas like this.

Exiled counterrevolutionary leader Adolfo Calero suggests that the Sandinistas, for all the mystique they cultivate of having lived and fought in the mountains, essentially waged their war in Nicaragua's cities. As such, he said, they may not have appreciated the importance of small landowners in such regions as this, many of whom profoundly mistrust the government the Sandinistas have created and are now vital to the fight against it here.

Moreover, the hatred of ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza's National Guard felt in urban neighborhoods where its rampages cost thousands of lives is not a strong memory here where the National Guard reportedly found many of its recruits in the past. Former National Guardsmen, as field commanders, now make up a small but vital core of the counterrevolutionaries' forces.

Much of the resentment against the current government in this region has grown out of the rebels' success in provoking the Sandinistas, making them overreact to the insurgency.

Several peasants said hard times began here in earnest only last year after the guerrillas' first serious offensives and the Sandinistas' declaration of a state of emergency.

Until then, said one mother of four children, the Sandinistas were "likable." But now, she said, "when they come and ask for food and we don't give it they accuse us of saving it for the contras." Her husband's father and two uncles are currently prisoners under suspicion of aiding the rebels, she said. She added that she sees no choice now but to support the counterrevolutionaries, who offer her some protection, or to flee to Honduras.

Many of the men bearing arms against the Sandinistas said they were jailed several times as suspected counterrevolutionary collaborators before they finally made their decision to fight.

Typical of many of the rebel troops was "Curo," a grizzled 46-year-old evangelical Christian who joined the rebel forces several months ago, along with two of his sons and other members of his church. The Sandinistas had jailed him for 70 days last year in the town of Ocotal "before they determined I wasn't involved in anything."

The Sandinistas often accuse the counterrevolutionaries of atrocities, and the contras charge the government's people with everything from torture to massacres of civilians to wantonly shooting cattle.

We saw nothing to support directly the claims of either side in this regard, but commanders of some of the troops with whom we traveled said they do "eliminate" prisoners if they appear to be committed Sandinista soldiers. They said militiamen and reservists who have been "forced" to join the government ranks are spared, but complained that when these people return to their original units they always claim to have escaped rather than admit that they were released.

Although the Sandinistas say the counterrevolutionaries often kidnap peasants and force them to work with them, we saw no indication of coercion among the people with whom we were able to talk.

The troops showed high morale and appeared to be fighting voluntarily, often marching from dawn until nightfall through rough terrain, eating little more than a few chunks of beef or sugar cane.

Again and again when peasants were asked why they were offering the contras food, sometimes bringing it unbidden to mountaintops for them, why they offered them shelter, why they told them where Sandinista troops were moving and ambushes were laid or why they had joined the rebel army, they said nothing about fear. Instead they talked in terms of what they view as Sandinista threats to their economic, social and cultural survival.

They complained about having to sell whatever crops or livestock they raised to state stores at prices set by the government. They detest rationing, which sometimes requires them to walk miles to get necessities.

The peasants said they were infuriated by Sandinista troops who commandeer food and supplies from their meager larders and leave them nothing but a slip of paper in return.

The contras pay cash. The patrol with which I traveled carried the equivalent of several thousand dollars in Nicaraguan currency.

The peasants intensely resent Sandinista propaganda and pressures against the evangelical churches many of them attend. Many, including Catholics, said they believe that the government in Managua is communist and atheist.

They find it easier to sympathize with contras, some of whom carry weathered Bibles to leaf through during breaks in their long marches and wear large crucifixes around their necks and religious medals on their fatigue hats.

Nueva Segovia is traditionally one of the most conservative of Nicaragua's provinces. Its scattered people, often just one family to a mountain, are imbued with the independence of pioneers. The centralist regimentation that the Sandinistas tried to impose slowly in the first two years after their 1979 triumph, then escalated dramatically last year in the face of the counterrevolutionary threat, does not sit well with them.

By contrast the counterrevolutionary leadership promises Nicaraguans, in Calero's words, "less government than they ever had before, with less government intervention in their lives."

Several peasants we talked to said they did not want to join the militias or the Sandinista Defense Committees, but those who do not are immediately suspected of being opponents of the government and an already difficult life becomes that much harder.

"If you don't have some post with them, then you're nothing," explained one young woman.

Others use what they call "technique" for survival in a land where at any moment one or another group of armed men may appear at the door.

One farmer, having helped direct a counterrevolutionary column past a Sandinista ambush, told us that he is often watched by the Sandinistas but has joined one of their defense committees and "that's how I keep my nails clean with them."

Another talked about how he tells Sandinista patrols when and where he has seen the counterrevolutionaries, but never quite knows where they went or what they were doing. It is not possible to say if he does the same thing to the contras.

From the many empty huts we passed, however, it appeared that most peasants have decided "technique" will not be enough to keep them alive. One peasant said that of 40 families that once lived in his settlement, only five are left. Most, he said, had gone to Honduras.

For the time being, an average 80-man patrol was able to buy, slaughter and eat about one cow a day. But as people continue to clear out of this war zone, Nueva Segovia counterrevolutionary commander Pedro Pablo Ortiz Centeno said that his troops, already trained and armed with the help of U.S. funds, "may soon have to start eating C-rations."