MAMOU — The Mardi Gras revelers saddled up shortly after dawn Tuesday, most still bleary eyed and steeped in beer from a long night of partying that bled uninterrupted into the morning.
As nervous horses tugged at the fences to which they've been tethered, a few of the riders — already cloaked in pointed capuchon caps and homemade masks — scampered up the flagpole in front of the American Legion hut and frantically danced as they guzzled cans of lukewarm beer.
Someone grabbed a fiddle, struck up a tune and suddenly a dozen Mardi Gras — as the Mamou riders who make the Fat Tuesday courir, or run, through the Acadiana countryside are known — are singing old ballads in French.
As the Mardi Gras arrived at their first stop, a nursing home tucked behind the local hospital, they climbed up the fences and energetically shook their costumed bodies despite the long night behind them.
A few Mardi Gras, wearing an eclectic mix of harlequin and fringe, grabbed the hands of the elderly residents, dancing a two-step to the accordion and fiddle band pulled along on a trailer for the run by a tractor.
At each subsequent stop, the riders — 175 in all, something of a record for this small Evangeline Parish town where the Cajun residents speak with pride about their traditions — danced for the residents before sprinting after chickens and pigs through ditches, bushes and fields in an elaborate pantomime of begging for the ingredients for a gumbo.
Outside a slaughterhouse doing a brisk business selling boudin, the Mardi Gras danced for a sack of rice before fighting each other to catch a handful of roosters tossed off the building's roof.
Most of the Mardi Gras, tassled and giddy on horseback, rode out of tradition: Their fathers, grandfathers and on back through decades of Cajun history made the Courir de Mardi Gras (French for "run of the Mardi Gras") out of Mamou.
The steady stream of Bud Light, passed out from the bed of an ice-filled pickup, certainly helped fuel the rowdy bunch as they galloped out of town to sprint through fields and brush through hours of exuberant exertion.
"They're running on nothing but beer," said Ricky Landreneau, who ran the Mamou Courir during high school and college years ago but watched Tuesday from outside a friend's farmhouse on the outskirts of town.
In a field outside the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a handful of caped captains cut loose a cage full of roosters one by one, watching as the Mardi Gras dove and sprinted after the birds.
The animals frequently come out the worse for wear: After being snagged by wing or neck or leg, caught at the bottom of a scrum or pinned beneath a diving Mardi Gras, they're held up as trophies amidst squawks and a plume of scattered feathers.
At several stops, hogs are loosed from cages for a haphazard and tumbling chase through the fields.
Mamou, a town of less than 4,000, is a place where Cajun folk of a certain age remember well being punished for speaking French in school — and where many speak with pride of keeping alive the old Mardi Gras tradition.
"I did it just once, to say I'd done it," said John Frugé, who ran the Courir in 1982. "It's been passed from old to young. Now we come and get to see people we haven't seen in a long time."
As they rode back to a simmering gumbo some 10 hours later, they danced on saddles, swung live chickens and whooped their way past the bars to a stage with a band playing Cajun music on town's main drag. The Mardi Gras, trailed by a long caravan of pickup trucks and flatbed trailers teeming with revelers, climbed on top of their saddles to dance for the crowd.
A few stumbled as they dismounted their horses, though most didn't show the exhaustion from the long hours of drinking, riding and sprinting.
Tanner Smith, a tall and gangly Mardi Gras from the piney woods of north Louisiana, said he first joined the run last year as a way of honoring the traditions of his Cajun ancestors and his wife's Mamou family.
By the end of the day, Smith, who bragged in the dizzying morning hours about being named last year's top chicken catcher on the Mamou Courir de Mardis Gras, had snagged about a dozen more birds and danced with a rooster to a Cajun band as the exhausted captains handed him the award once again.
"We've got to keep this alive — we're a dying breed," Smith said Tuesday. "If I'm still young and able, you can bet I'll be at this Mardi Gras."