August 4, 1898
It was a year of dire hardship in the parish of Saint Tammany. A deadly hurricane was followed by 6 months of drought followed by a tropical storm that spawned a tornado which leveled the village of Zita. To top it all off, the whole country was mired in the worst depression of the mostly finished century. The general state of the area was miserable and tragic. If you were just miserable you were one of the lucky ones.
Times were never easy in this place of bayou and soggy plain, surrounded by low scrabble hills. Farming is a foolhardy proposition, fishing is difficult due to the paucity of good landings and no ports to speak of. The river is out of reach at least the big river. The Pearl River splits to surround the parish Mississippi gets the useful part leaving the muddy, weed choked channel fit only for wildlife habitat and poachers.
Zachary Chambers finally gave it up. He told his wife Carmen, a Cajun woman brought up deep in the bayou country, that the land was good for nothin’ but burying a body and he wasn’t lookin’ to be one of those bodies.
He was a farmer, but had learned several useful trades carpentry and masonry. He was good with animals and skillful with a boat. She was able to make almost anything grow, anywhere except the piece of land in the gravel and clay of the low hill country. Together they had made a fine log house of 3 rooms, but they and their two boys were almost always on the edge of starvation.
“Now we ain’t good for nuthin layabouts,” He said to Carmen one day as they were standing next to a field of ruined corn after the tornados had ripped through the county, across the small outpost of Zita and through their particular corn field.
“We work and toil and struggle and what do we get for it? Ruin and starvation,” he finished throwing his down hat on the dusty clay. Carmen, who never said much, just look sadly across the tangled, blackened mess that used to be bright green corn stalks as high as her shoulder and nodded in agreement.
“Now I propose we hitch that old mule to our cart. Fill it with our meager worldly goods and rid ourselves of this god forsaken place. We don’t owe nobody anything. We are free to go. Nobody standin in our way s’far as I see it.”
Carmen looked down blinking back quiet tears.
“It is so. No one is lookin’ to us to keep em’ up neither. Ma and Pa and all the family are doing well enough out there. That ain’t the life for me no more. I can’t go back.”
So they gathered up their meager possessions and loaded them in the back of the old buckboard wagon that Zach’s father had built and Zach had repaired many times. Carmen gathered what food they had stored and got the boys ready.
They were small, muscular boys with boundless energy like puppies always wrestling and curious about anything new. They had remained fairly healthy and in good spirits despite their life of privation. Zach jr. was 8, and Jack, whose name was actually Jean Jacques after his grandfather, was 5. They also called him J. J.. The boys exploded out of the house with whoops and shouts. Zach jr. grabbed JJ in a headlock.
“So little brother what you think ‘bout this. We goin’ on a venture.”
“what’s a venture?” JJ’s calm but muffled voice came out of the headlock.
“A venture is a long trip when you don’t know where you goin’.” Zach spoke to the back of JJ’s head and then let him loose sprinting to the wagon. JJ unperturbed by this treatment raced after him.