CHICAGO — The campfire is doused. The saddles are tightened. An evil wind howls, until even the vultures shriek and fly away. From the dirt of the unforgiving earth, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse arise, ready for their hellish ride: Death, Famine, Pestilence . . . and The Chicago Bears defense.

Outlaws are they. Mean and ugly. The blood of a quarterback makes them crazy with the fire. Already, several NFL passers have felt their wrath. The Cowboys’ Danny White, knocked out twice in one game. The Lions’ Joe Ferguson, speared on the third play from scrimmage, gone for the day.

And this afternoon, Phil Simms and the New York Giants. Stakes are higher. Playoff stakes. And so the Chicago desperados spent the last week under southern skies, no doubt drinking rum and growing beards and baying at the moon, letting the evil rise within them.

Now the game is almost upon us. And here they come. You can hear the hoofbeats. Feel the trembling as they close in on their target, the quarterback. Ride, ye devils, ride!

But do they do it for love, or do they do it for money? Or do they do it for . . . dinner?

Dinner? They’re tough as rawhide

Yes. Dinner. A free dinner. At least that is the suggestion from sheriff Pete Rozelle, who, desperate to clean up his town, imposed a $2,000 fine on Bears’ linebacker Wilber Marshall for the spear-job he gave Ferguson.

In a letter to Marshall, Rozelle claimed the Bears put a bounty on opposing quarterbacks. He cited an alleged comment from Bears lineman Steve McMichael, in which McMichael offered to buy dinner for any teammate who knocked out a quarterback.

Dinner?

“Ridiculous,” McMichael said.

Dinner?

“They ought to pass a rule and put a flag on the quarterback’s butt,” he said. “Then we can just grab it instead of tackling him.”

Dinner?

“It’s foolish,” Bears coach Mike Ditka said. “We don’t have anything like that and we don’t teach it.

“(Rozelle) has been around this long and he doesn’t know how players talk? He’s got a lot to learn.”

Yeah. But . . . dinner?

“Even if something like that existed,” Marshall said, “do they have any proof it was done to me? I felt bad about hitting (Ferguson). . . . But I’m going to play physical ball and it’s going to stay like that.”

Ditka told Marshall he should appeal the punishment. Ditka also suggested, if the appeal was denied, that the whole team chip in to pay the fine. No one is holding his breath on that one.

Can you see the desperados, sitting around the dwindling fire?

“Hey, hombre. The sheriff, he has put a $2,000 fine on your head.”

“Maybe you, my amigos, will help me pay it.”

“Ha. Fat chance.”

“But the sheriff is the man with the badges.”

“Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”

No. Desperados do not work this way. Desperados are ruthless. Thick-skinned.

“Two thousand dollars won’t hurt Marshall’s pocket,” said his teammate Otis Wilson.

See? Tough as rawhide. He’s tied up right now

And now, they are in the playoffs, Marshall and Wilson and McMichael and Mike Singletary and Richard Dent and the rest of the Bears defense, ready to pillage and destroy Simms and the visiting Giants from the East.

What should we call it? Maybe “The Perils of Phil?” Will they tie him to the railroad track as the train comes around the bend? Will they bind him to the mill and throw the switch for the buzz saw? Will they simply take him hostage and ride off into the sunset?

And trade him for . . . dinner?

“We’re not trying to hurt anybody,” Marshall said. “We’re just playing football.”

Of course, they face a team whose defense also is wanted in several states for assault and blitzery. Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Leonard Marshall. These are not names to be taken lightly.

But there’s only room in this town for one gang. And no one ever accused the Giants of being bounty hunters.

Now the skies grow ugly. You can hear them coming. Hear those hoofbeats, closing in. Do they do it for love, or do they do it for money?

Simms, the quarterback with a price on his head, can only hope for one thing.

He can hope they ate lunch.

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