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MAMOU, La. - Let them toss beads, revel and carouse in the streets of New Orleans; rural Louisiana has its own Mardi Gras. On the day before Ash Wednesday, riders course through the countryside for the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras - the Fat Tuesday Run - collecting ingredients for a community gumbo.

When the horsemen arrive at a home, they dance for the household, which sets a chicken free among them. This requires the beggars to give chase, competing to capture the chicken.

The horsemen are directed by capitaines, who wear brightly colored capes. Their rowdy followers are dressed in gaudy costumes that originally were meant to mock authority - tall, pointed dunce caps and sometimes furry animal masks - in a ritual that began in medieval Europe.

The masks had been required in order to cover the shame of begging.

"This is the true Mardi Gras," says Jean LeBleau, who lives here in Cajun country and has always avoided the New Orleans celebration.

"We don't need anything else."

Here in Mamou, about 200 miles northwest of New Orleans, a hundred or so horsemen gathered at 6 a.m. yesterday. They rode out at 8:30, accompanied by about 40 non-horsemen riding on a flatbed truck, and headed back about 3 p.m., drinking all the way.

When they get back to town in the afternoon, gumbos are cooked, dancers dance and drinkers drink.

And it all stops before midnight, when Ash Wednesday begins and, with it, the stern denial of Lent.

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