Le Capitaine cleared his throat. His rugged, handsome face wore a no-nonsense scowl above its neatly trimmed black beard. ``Cher, you must leave. Now.''
I made my way through the noisy throng and squeezed through the door. More than 100 horses stood waiting for their riders. Tied to trees. Tied to tractors. Tied to each other in patient groups. I remembered that someone had once told me, ``Never walk behind a horse.'' I chuckled. That pundit had certainly never been to Mamou, La., on Mardi Gras morning.
Horses and riders had been gathering on the Elks Club lawn since dawn. Women, children, and a sprinkling of early rising tourists stood around waiting. We had all come to witness Le Courir de Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras Run. A wild horseback romp through Southwest Louisiana prairie country to outlying farms where the merrymakers sing, dance and cavort, hoping their performance will be rewarded with ingredients for a communal gumbo pot that caps the day's festivities. With roots in French Carnival traditions of the Middle Ages, the Run has been a Cajun custom since the 1800s. It's the last party before the austere days of Lent.
Le Courir is a far cry from New Orleans' Mardi Gras hoopla. Instead of gaily decorated floats and costumed riders, a line of tractors was harnessed to hay wagons filled with folks in jeans. In lieu of marching bands, a group of down-home music-makers was cranking out lively dance tunes in the rear of a flatbed truck.
With time to kill before the men emerged from their top-secret meeting, I made a beeline to Fred's Lounge, a celebrated local music haunt. Music is the heart and soul of Cajun country. In predawn darkness I had dashed from my B&B in Lafayette along 30 miles of bumpy back roads, one hand on the wheel and one spinning the radio dial in search of some fast-tempo wake-up tunes. It landed on a station beaming zydeco. As dawn broke, it seemed that light rippled through the gray sky in time to the pulse-pounding Creole beat.
It was barely daylight, and already Fred's was jammed. I slipped through the crowd like a snake and bellied up to the bar. Beer was sloshing into glasses as fast as the six barkeeps could pour. Before midnight tolled, 5,000 cases of brew would be consumed. Through the crush of adoring fans, I caught glimpses of the proprietor, a sexy soulful septuagenarian whom everyone calls Aunt Sue. She was belting out a bawdy Cajun two-step. My French wasn't good enough to decipher all the lyrics, but her body language made a dictionary unnecessary.
Homage to a music luminary complete, I shouldered my way to the exit and popped out onto the pavement like a spent watermelon seed. Every street leading to the Elks Club was blocked. Police stood easy guard, their solid black uniforms making them look more like a big-city SWAT team than rural law enforcers. Ropes of purple, green and gold Mardi Gras beads were tangled up in the walkie-talkie wires that crisscrossed the police chief's burly chest.
I wandered through the crowd, catching snippets of Cajun French between the horses' snorts and snuffles and the band's fiddle and accordion melodies. A muffled roar came from inside the hall. Costumed men spewed out the door like confetti shot from a cannon. They leaped on their horses, did handstands in their saddles, and pulled their mounts into fair imitations of the Lone Ranger's famous ``Hi-yo Silver!''
Slowly but surely the stern, purple-caped captain and his crew of equally solemn deputies rounded up the horsemen. Horseless revelers climbed into two of the waiting hay wagons. The band cranked up the volume. With mighty rumbles and lurches the tractors moved out. A beer truck took second-line position. A straggling line of autos followed. Horns tooting and music blaring, we set off to amuse the community. Townspeople lined the route. As the ragtag procession passed by, everyone whistled and cheered. At the first farm, the procession halted. Cape fluttering in the early morning breeze, Le Capitaine approached the gathered family and asked permission to enter the property. It was granted, and he lowered his white flag. The costumed men poured into the yard - dancing, prancing, swaggering and staggering. The band played the Cajun Mardi Gras song. The men bellowed the words, off-key but with gusto.
Their slapstick performance was just what the household had been hoping to see. The homeowner tossed a chicken into the air. Live. Squawking. Wings flapping. But not for long. Three hundred hooting marauders tore after the fowl like the hounds of hell. They skidded and slid, bumped and crashed, shoved, kicked and tumbled over one another in a frenzied attempt to capture their prey.
For several minutes the chicken led them on a mad chase. Then it was over. The mud-spattered victor trudged back to his waiting leader and surrendered the prize. Le Capitaine brandished the trophy in the air for all to admire. A roar went up from the crowd. Then he stuffed the bird in a sack hanging from his saddlehorn, and the motley parade moved on. As the procession rolled down the country lane, the beer truck was besieged. Women moved through the marchers passing out hard-boiled eggs. Breakfast.
It was a scene that was repeated over and over again. At some homes, the farmers threw bags of rice, sacks of flour or chains of andouille sausage from the roofs of their barns, initiating free-for-all scrambles. Some pastures were soggy quagmires. Some had big mudholes that quickly became stages for impromptu wrestling matches and fantastic belly-flopping displays. The colors on most of the rainbow costumes were soon obscured by a coating of dark Louisiana mud.
By the time we had visited the last house on the 13-mile route, the beer coolers were empty and more than one rider had trouble staying in his saddle. Costumed revelers burst into spontaneous dances by the side of the road. Some fell into the crawfish canals. Marchers begged rides from solo horsemen. A few riderless horses tagged along at the back of the pack.
Back in Mamou a crowd of 5,000 greeted our return with ecstatic cries of ``Eeeey, Mardi Gras!'' All day long, runners had been ferrying Le Courir's hard-won spoils back to town. In a clearing behind the Elks Club men ladled steaming gumbo from huge black cauldrons, and women dished potato salad out of big plastic tubs. Riders had first dibs on the victuals.
I spent the rest of the day sampling other taste treats at food booths that peppered the crowded streets. Bright red boiled crawfish. Spicy boudin sausages made with rice and ground pork. Featherlight doughnuts rolled in nutmeg and sugar. Between bites I roamed from soundstage to soundstage. Cajun music legends played one after the other, and I danced until my feet begged for mercy.
At the stroke of midnight the music stopped. Lent had begun and the party ended as if someone had pulled a giant plug. I drove back to Lafayette footsore, weary and not the least bit penitent. The radio station was still beaming zydeco tunes.
IF YOU GO * Getting there. To visit Cajun country, or Mamou, La., site of the Cajun Mardi Gras tomorrow and Tuesday, take Interstate 10 west from Lafayette to the second Crowley Exit (Louisiana Highway 13) and head north about 28 miles to the Mamou turnoff. Or ask Douglas Greenwood, of Alida's B&B, to map out the scenic backwoods route.
Staying there. Alida's B&B is at 2631 S.E. Evangeline Thruway, Lafayette. It's a shrimp-colored Queen Anne cottage filled with period antiques, fluffy comforters, lazy ceiling fans, and private baths with huge clawfoot tubs. In a past life the place was St. Genevieve's Elementary School, where headmistress Alida Martin rapped the knuckles of several generations of Lafayette civic leaders. Innkeepers Tanya and Douglas Greenwood also serve as insiders on the best crawdad eateries and the Cajun music scene. Rates are from $75 to $95 a room per night, and include breakfast.
For more information and reservations, Alida's phone number is 318-264-1191. The Web site: http://www.alidas.com