The doorbell rang at 4 a.m., about an hour after the last customr drove off down the dirt road and past the pet cemetery away from the isolated brothel.

No one was alarmed by the predawn arrival of another man. Business at the Chicken Ranch, like the red light over its door, is on 24 hours a day.

But on this dark morning last June the man at the door was not a pleasure seeker. The housekeeper opened the door to a face partially hidden by two wide strips of black tape. Her startled scream was preempted by a punch.

The next thing she knew the parlor was aflame around her, from the intruder's firebombs, and 14 people narrowly escaped death in the inferno.

It was a violent turn in what has otherwise been primarily a political and legal battle over prostitution in sprawling Nye County-Sanctuary -- a more than century-old battle for legal brothels in Nevada.

The Chicken Ranch was back in operation four days after the fire with much fanfare, a new barbed wire fence-and a pledge from the owner that "no one's gonna try to hurt my girls again without a fight."

Responsibility for the bombing was not determined officially, but there were thinly veiled suggestions that political foes of the owner might have had a hand in it. The FBI and a federal grand Jury had a look at that possibility without result.

Others blamed competing brothel interests or possibly an outraged citizen. No subsequent attacks on the Chicken Ranch or any other brothel have been reported.

A threat to Nye County's legal brothels more serious than violence appears to be a new county ordinance that would ban prostitution in Nevada's largest county after March 31.

The ordinance would affect five brothels:

The Chicken Ranch -- Two years old and one of the newest, it is outside Pahrump and draws heavily from the Las Vegas market, a one-hour drive away. It is a complex of large house trailers with a staff of 15 to 20 working girls and the highest prices in the county -- $30 minimum at $2 a minute.

The Cherry Patch -- Another relative newcomer to Nye County, it is a few miles north of the Chicken Ranch in the Pahrump Valley. The remote highway turnoff to the brothel is marked by a sign that glows red in the dark.

Both the Cherry Patch from the old Death Valley Junction Railroad Station nearly 30 years ago, the brothel and its companion bar on hghway 95 are most of the business district of Lartop Wells, a wide spot in the desert highway.

Like the other long-established brothels farther north, the Shamrock relies most heavily on the local market. One men has been a steady custoner for 20 years.

Franz's Star Ranch -- Just outside Beatty, not far from Bare Mountain, this brothel is one of the oldest in Nye' County. There is an airstrip just outside the front porch and the wreckage of a twin-engine plane marks the driveway entrance off highway 95.

Vsitors to the red and white farmhouse must drive across th airstrip. There is a special truck parking lot to the north side of the house.

Bobbie's Buckeye Bar -- This is the queen of the county's prostitution houses, a bright pink bar and brothel in the county seat of Tonopah. The 70-year-old proprietress has operated a brothel in town as long as most people can remember.

The county crackdown after more than 100 years of uninterrupted brothel operation came after a legal dispute between the county and Walt Plankinton, outspoken owner of the Chicken Ranch.

Plankinton, 50, is a former trucking company owner and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate from Colorado. He launched a $60,000 advertising campaign in Las Vegas papers when he opened, offering free limousine service and special rates with a local car rental agency.

It was a bold departure from the lowprofile operators up the highway and it apparently ruffled some feathers.

cAdvertising will kill this business," one operator warned.

cWe don't put spotlights in the sky or big signs saying legal whorehouse.' It violates one of the rules of this business," said the Shamrock's madam. "The public won't let us flaunt it."

Peter Knight, the Nye County district attorney, said his office received 200 complaints from residents of Pahrump after the Chicken Ranch opened.

"One man told us his wife and daughter had men walk into the house on them thinking they had found the cat house," Knight said.

The county tried to close the brothel in 1977 as a nuisance, but the state Supreme Court recently overruled the action. The court decision prompted the ordinance banning all brothels.

"If we can't control prostitution when it becomes a nuisance then the only control we have is to outlaw it," said a county official.

Plankinton has another version. He blames the county's attempt to close him on his refusal to meet "under-the-table demands" of local politicians.

And he figures he may have further ruffled county officials when he ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner two years ago and then backed the district attorney's opponent financially in a close race last year.

The corruption allegations and the arson attack on Plankinton's brothel were enough to bring the FBI and a federal grand jury into Nye County late last year.

While no indictments arose from the probe, the U.S. attorney recommended a subsequent state investigation.

"There were many suggestions within this investigation [of the Chicken Ranch bombing] that would [indicate] possible political corruption in Nye County," said U.S. Atty. B. Mahlon Brown. "Those suspicions have not vanished."

In a letter to then-Nevada Atty. Gen. Robert List (now the governor), Brown urged formation of a special state grand jury and a state probe independent of the Nye County district attorney's office.

"The proof and evidence we gathered simply gave us no federal jurisdiction," he wrote to List. "It is clear... that some crimes have been committed in Nye County."

List declined to intervene.

Dr. Knight hotly repudiated "the innuendo of corruption," saying: "We are not on the take in this county."

Meanwhile, back at the brothel, it was business as usual -- and over the recent holidays business was very good.

The Christmas tree in the Chicken Ranch parior was decked in homemade ornaments signed by some of the staff -- Brandy, Joy, C.C., Teri and Sam (he's the security and maintenance man).

"See, we aren't terrible people. We believe in Christ and Christmas," said Plankinton, conducting a tour of his brothel.

In the parlor, dominated by the color red, five men were being introduced to the conquettish lineup of girls in slinky evening dresses.

Each girl had been introduced while all five men sat crowded together on the couch.

"Now, who would you like to talk to?" the pleasant, middle-aged madam asked the first man.

The selections made, the girls escorted their new partners off the spacious, neatly kept rooms. There rates would be discussed in private before the timers glowing pink in the dark were placed on the carpet outside the doors -- ticking off pleasure at roughly per minute.

"This is lousy work, but the money's good," said a girl without a customer. Another girl said she would clear $2,000 that week after a slow $400 week previously.

But the doorbell rang, ending the interview.

"Gotta go make a buick," the girl said. "Come back again. I think we'll be around for a while yet."

The new anti-prostitution ordinance is also opposed by an unorganized grassroots "support-your-local brothel" campaign that has led to separate petitions for different brothels around the county.

In the county seat where county commissioners unanimously adopted the brothel-banning ordinance last September, the Tonopah Convention Center director, Robert Perchetti, led a drive that collected 500 petitions signatures in support of Bobbie's Buckeye.

"Only five people refused to sign it," said Perchetti. "Everyone who did sign is a personal friend of Bobbie Duncan [the owner]."

Bobbie's house has always held a special place in the Tonopah community. When her pipes froze during winter the county fire department would always send out a pumper truck to fix them.

Perchetti said the aging madam has made a big contribution to the community.

"Her donations to community causes are alwas the biggest in town," he said. "She even sent me $50 once when I was going to college and needed money. She's fine lady9"

Other brothels also have tried to make special contributions to their communities.

The Chicken Ranch girls raised nearly $1,000 to help send a terminally ill youngster to Disneyland. Fran's Star Ranch promotes local tourism by sponsoring regular parachute competitions and burro races.

In the parlors of the brothels today there seems to be little concern among the girls as the March 31 closing date approaches. Most expect a legislative compromise or protracted legal moves.

"If they do close us down, a lot of girls will just go back to Vegas with all the other hookers," said Toby, a married mother of two who isan eight-year veteran of the business.

"But we'd rather be here. We get checked [a medical exam] every week, there's no hassle with vice [officers] and no payoffs [to bellhops, taxi drivers and pimps]," she said, adding:

"The biggest whorehouses in the county are the hotels on the Strip [where prostitution is illegal]. Most of us have worked there."

Terri, the 29-year-old madam at the Shamrock, said closure of Nye County brothels would be "a real loss" to the public.

"This house really brings a lot of sunshine into so many lives," said the blond Louisiana native.