One day this year, Eddie Kennett was sitting at home on his farm down here in southern Maryland when the telephone rang and he heard a gruff message from an anonymous caller: "I'm gonna burn your barns tonight."

To Kennett, it was no idle threat. Only eight years earlier, he had lost some 20 acres of tobacco worth $55,000 in a barn burning. So this time, he and several other farmers who had received similar threats were taking no chances. They kept vigil for many sleepless nights, their guns at the ready.

Eddie Kennett was one of the lucky ones that time. His barns still stand, while six others have been set aflame in the countryside darkness, the billowing fires testaments to the peculiar brand of living in these parts.

Here in the 7th District of St. Mary's County, land of creeks, wharves, woods, and rich farmland on the peninsula, lawlessness is a way of life. For as long as anyone can remember, barns have been burned, tobacco crops have been heisted and crab pots have been routinely stolen from the waters. The locals call it the "Barbary Coast."

But for all the torching and stealing and fighting there are few 7th District residents who want the police to come in and calm things down. There is a strong vigilante spirit here and the code of self-reliance runs deep.

There was the time, for instance, when James I. Carter pumped four bullets into James (Ears) Armstrong at the Paradise Club on Hatch's Thicket Road after Ears danced shoeless and sassed the waiter to boot.

Carter got six months for manslaughter and was, for a while, under judicial order to stay away from guns and bars. That restriction has since been partly lifted and Carter has been allowed to return to the Paradise, to live upstairs, to visit friends downstairs.

Such stories of the Barbary Coast elicit smiles up in the county seat of Leonardtown, but the locals here often are not amused by the goings on. The recent rash of barn burnings and tobacco thefts has prompted the citizens of the 7th once again to bear arms and keep watch in their own defense.

"The whole philosophy," said one St. Mary's County law enforcement officer, "is don't call in the cops, do it yourself."

"Say some of 'em, be out there crabbin' and someone steals pots," explained Robert T. Brown, president of the St. Mary's Waterman's Association and a 7th district resident, in his home on St. Patrick's Creek. "The fella he thought stole from him, he'll go steal from him. Then there's the fella out there trying to make an honest living and he'll probably be hit hardest 'cause he won't steal nobody else's stuff."

"If I actually caught a man in my pots, I'll kill him," said Oats Wathen, a waterman for 27 of his 42 years. "I'm tired of it. I might as well go to jail and let welfare take care of my kids. I just got enough of it. It's rough, I'll tell you that, cap'm."

Two years ago, more than 100 of Wathens crab pots were smashed. Last year, 67 were stolen.

"The 7th district is worthy of its reputation," said Cpl. Richard Carroll, a Maryland maritime police officer who patrols its waters."A lot of people will put a bug in your ear, but (they won't testify because) they're afraid of having a barn burned down. It's just a hard nut to crack."

This is above all a land of few secrets and a place where almost everyone seems to be related. People named Bailey and Bowles and Morgan and Cheseldine abound among the 3,728 residents, who have the lowest median income in the county. There is a modicum of wealth too, among the watermen and farmers who can afford to send their children to Catholic schools.

Here, the waterman's lingo is almost a foreign language ("Dee by gawd cap'm" means "Indeed, by god, captain,") and barking "doags" almost outnumber people. New arrivals are called "come here folk" and are accepted only after a fashion and after a while.

The first colonists on Maryland's western shore landed here in 1634 on St. Clement's Island, marked today by a huge cross. It is here that the annual Blessing of the Fleet draws city crowds, craning for a view of "Maryland's Mother County" that hardly tells the story.

It is a story, as one outsider put it, of "down home, decent people who are hard-working, hard-drinking and hard-fighting."'

Countless years ago, a wild bunch known as the "dirty dozen" inhabited Muddy Creek, and the "Lower Neck" and "Upper Neck" frequently brawled. From the 1880s well into the 1920s, however, 7th District watermen faced a common enemy: Virginians who tried to tong for oysters in the many creeks jutting into the peninsula. The two sides often exchanged gunfire, sometimes fatal in what became known as "the Oyster Wars."

During Prohibition, St. Mary's whiskey was said to be the best and Bushwood Wharf was the place to get it. "They would load two or three boats a night from Virginia," recalled Capt. Sam Bailey, at 83 the presiding peninsula patriarch with six children, 21 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren still living within three miles of his home.

For 20 years after World War II, the famed "skeeter (mosquito) fleet" of small, fast power boats plied the Potomac, illegally "drudging" for oysters under cover of night, until the supply ran out.

"Times were hard," said Tucker Brown, 41, who said he acted only as a lookout for dredgers. "It was against the law, sure, but when things get to that stage, it's time for laws to be changed." Besides, he said, chewing a wad of Red Man tobacco, the dredging "cultivated the bottom."

Since the oyster bars became depleted, the armada of oyster outlaws has disappeared, "although," Brown confided, "I do hear tell there is a run made now and then."

Such is life in the 7th District, where swashbuckling scenes on Maryland's Barbary Coast alternate with others reminiscent of a Southern novel, with one possible exception: in this corner of the county, wearing a police badge confers no special immunity, even if the wearer happens to live here.

One resident deputy sheriff, investigating an earlier rash of tobacco thefts, returned from a weekend away a couple of years ago to find two acres of his tobacco plants destroyed. The deputy, Cpl. Don Purdy, now wears a pistol tucked in his belt when he drives a tractor on his 40-acres on a hill overlooking the Wicomico, a Potomac tributary.

Just last November, another resident deputy sheriff watched his entire tobacco yield -- nine acres valued at $20,000 -- go up in flames along with the barn where the crop was curing.

"They come up on a dinghy boat and walked around the marsh line," said Cpl. Ernest Carter, a 7th District native who left and then returned here after finding Washington an unfit place to rear children.

Standing amid shards of burned metal and charred timbers of the barn he rented, Carter said he had "my opinion" as to the culprits.

Throughout the region, the opinion is roughly the same, that a small, close-knit band of men has imposed a reign of terror on the citizenry. "There are several involved and they seem to fluctuate by who's in jail," said Charles Donaldson, the recently retired fire inspector.

The conventional wisdom and the whereabouts of most everybody travels rapidly down the spine of this peninsula, from public place to public place, from the local beauty parlor to the 7th District Rescue Squad, from the Victory Bar to the Old Gum tavern.

"It's a bad situation, cap'm," said one man nursing a beer at the Old Gum Tavern. "It's rough down here at times. You have a bunch down here don't want to see a man make an extra dollar."

Few here, however, will publicly point a finger, for lack of positive proof, for fear of retribution, for fear of violating the code.

For example, when the 147 farmers and their wives signed a letter the other week, demanding stiff sentences for two alleged tobacco thieves, many did so only on the condition their names would be kept confidential, except from the judge. They were worried about retaliation, they said.

Roy Bowles, 45, and Raymond (Crow) Morgan, 40, two burly watermen, were the subject of the letter following their arrest last year for stealing $3,300 worth of tobacco from an Amish family in Mechanicsville. On Feb. 29 -- the day after one of Bowles' sons was sentenced to 10 years in prison for barn burning -- the two men pleaded guilty to the theft.

They were pleading guilty, they said, not because they did it but because they were convinced the circumstantial evidence was enough to convict them.

After that proceeding, the county prosecutor sought to revoke Bowles' bond for allegedly shooting at a man who had declined to testify to Bowles' good character. Bowles said he was shooting, but not at the man, and remained free on bond.

"There's a lot of things going on in this county," for which he has been blamed, Bowles volunteered the other day in front of his house at the end of Bowles Road, pleading innocent to all charges. His close friend, Crow Morgan, likewise maintained his innocence, while acknowledging he ranks high on everyone's list of suspects due to prior convictions for breaking and entering and grand larceny.

"He was full of rascality when he was younger," his wife, Ann Morgan, said at their small house by Bushwood Wharf. "Once you get to bad name," she said, "You carry it to the grave,' Crow Morgan said solemnly, completing her sentence.

With them were two of their six children who had stayed home from school to help their father on the water. "I'm a work hard on this river all my life, all my life," said Crow Morgan, who claims never to have made enough money to pay taxes but never to have been on welfare.

The barn burnings, the tobacco thefts and crimes on the water are "just a bunch of rascality," his wife declared. "The ones doing it [are] the ones gonna keep doing it and walking around free and clear while others take the blame."

Cpl. Purdy, the deputy sheriff who handled the Amish case, is convinced, however, the guilty have been caught. The Amish were able to identify their three pads of tobaco in a LaPlata warehouse because they tied their leaves in a unique way. The tobacco, warehouse officials told Purdy, had been brought to market by Bowles and Morgan.

The citizens of the 7th District hoped the sentencing judge would come down hard, to deter future crimes. At a hearing, the judge instead promised the defendants a few months in work-release camp if they made restitution in 60 days.

State's Attorney Neal Myerberg later said he intended to demand stiff jail terms at the actual sentencing but he did not openly object to the judge's promise at the earlier hearing.

In the meantime, Bowles and Morgan have asked to withdraw their guilty pleas, and have asked for a change of venue for the case. They have also decided to delay making any restitution.

The recent ruckus has caused quite a stir, to be sure, in the region. Seventh district residents regard the whole affair as merely more evidence that, as one embittered farmer put it, "in my personal opinion, we don't have no law" except their own. CAPTION: Picture 1, As a deterrent to burglars and vandals, Eddie Kennett has posted a reward for information on potential culprits.; Picture 2, Deputy Sheriff Don Purdy runs his tractor with a pistol in his belt.; Picture 3, Deputy Sheriff Ernest Carter stands amid the charred ruins of the barn he rented.It was burned to the ground, along with his tobacco valued at $20,000.; Picture 4, Theft suspect Raymond (Crow) Morgan checks eel traps. According to his wife, "He was full of rascality."; Map, no caption, The Washington Post