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Giving your word's no joke

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

There is a saying among the people of the rural South used to condemn anyone who has changed the terms of an agreement, especially those done with a word and a hand shake.

"You went back on your word." That is not just a comment it is a curse, for nothing riles the Scotch-Irish more than to have someone renege on their word.

There is a code of conduct that you will find in the Southern mountains that is passed down generation to generation: a handshake agreement stands, your word is your bond, and when you take on one of us, you take on all of us.

Daddy always had two ways of summing up a man: either honest or dishonest. He would either say, "If he tells you somethin', you can take it to the bank" or "the truth's not in him."

I've always been amused by those mountain renegades, many of 'em making money in the moonshine industry. They may have lived on the outside fringes of the law, but they still adhered to a culture where a man does what he says he'll do.

Many, many years ago, a farmer, who also did some moonshining, owned land that bordered our farm, and Daddy fancied that land. The renegade, a just and fair businessman, named a price for the land but Daddy couldn't afford it. Five years later, knowing the land had risen significantly in price, Daddy, his fortunes a mite improved, once again approached him and asked the price. The man shoved his hands deep into his overalls, looked Daddy straight in the eye and said steadily, "Preacher, I told 'cha five years ago what I'd sell you that land for. My word's my word. That's still how much it'll cost ya."

Daddy bought it right there on the spot. Every time I pass that piece of land, I think of that handshake deal.

Time passed and that old man never forgot my family or that we all, basically, came from the same clan. A while back, a contractor arrived at my house to do some work. He had moved to the mountains from the North. Turns out that he was neighbors -- as close as neighbors can be in the country -- with that old renegade.

"I didn't know you knew that old man," he commented.

I smiled. "Oh yes. Our families go back a long way together. He's always been good to us and Daddy was always good to him."

He shook his head, the kind of puzzled look I often see from those outsiders who don't understand me or my kind. "When he found out I was doin' work for you, he told me I'd better do right by you or he'd burn me out."

He paused for a second and bit his lower lip. After a few thoughtful seconds, he spoke again. "He didn't sound like he was kidding."

I arched an eyebrow and smiled. "He wasn't."

A great-uncle of mine had a partner in the moonshining business. The partner, for only reasons God knows, turned from renegade to righteous. And he, worst of all betrayals, became a revenuer. Talk about a career change.

His former partner promised him, as family legend goes, that if he told anybody where his still was hidden, he'd shoot him dead. Apparently, he forgot the code of the mountains: A man's word is his bond. So he told, the revenuers came and while they were busting up the still, my ancestor loaded his shotgun and shot him dead.

Later, when someone asked why he did that, he replied, "I told him I would, and I'm as good as my word."

Maybe that's taking it a bit too far, but you get the idea. We like to abide by what we say we'll do.

It'd be a good lesson for some other folks to learn, too.

Contact columnist Ronda Rich at southswomen@bellsouth.net.