The masses begin on the eve of Epiphany and recur with a frequency that seems calculated as a further test of the cowboys' endurance. Under the statue, from the mouth of a tiny chapel, a young, severely handsome priest drones at the thousands of cowboys who have crammed their horses nose-to-tail, flank-to-flank, at the chapel's steps. The riders tip their Stetsons against the sun and close their eyes. At least one cowboy has collapsed over his saddle horn and is sleeping deeply. The horses slump on cocked haunches. Incense trails blue against the priest's robes. Soon, the cowboys will take turns to dismount from their horses and climb the steps into the chapel to fall on saddle-weary knees in front of el NiÃ±o Dios. They kiss the image of the Christ Child with gentle reverence, and the doll's face, as if made flesh by all those lips, begins to shine real sweat.
At night, the cowboys sleep in tents, on hay, on saddlebags, or on the ground next to their horses, which call to one another without cease. One horse, shaking with the shock of colic, has been tied to a wall so that he is unable to sink to his knees or even touch his mouth to his stomach. His eyes gleam in panic. Elsewhere, some horses have found enough room on their ropes to lie down.
Against the night's chill, the GonzÃ¡lez men have made their pampered horses comfortable in blankets and with bales of alfalfa. A fire has been built in front of a canvas tent, and there is meat on a grill. This is Marco Antonio GonzÃ¡lez Guerrero's third ride in the cabalgata, and he is with his father (who has ridden ten times), his two brothers, three cousins, his nephew, his son, and an encampment of friends. They have ridden for three days from dawn to dusk from the family ranch at San Diego de la UniÃ³n.
GonzÃ¡lez uses lilting Spanish-tongued English. "I came back from Texas to ride in this cabalgata. A lot of these people come back from the States to show their faith here today. I brought my son"â€”the American son, a hefty student of architecture, looks worn outâ€”"so that he can see for himself what our faith means to us. In another way, we are saying even though this is our faith, we want to pray for all people. All people are equal under God. We have come here, tired and sore, and we have endured something together. This has made us forget our differences, so we pray for peace in ourselves, for peace in Mexico, for peace in all the world. Whoever you are, Muslim, Jewish, Catholicâ€”we pray for you here, now." For a long time, no one else speaks; the fire dances warmth between the men.
Afterward, GonzÃ¡lez says, "Look, I don't drink a lot. But I had a little tequila out there in the hills where all those oak trees grow, and you know, I really felt closer to God, as if he was right there in that nature all around us." Then, very softly, GonzÃ¡lez begins to recite the Lord's Prayer, "Padre nuestro que estÃ¡s en el cielo . . ." And to a weary traveler who has been too long in the sun, it sounds like the beginning of hope in a song.