Gunfight in Public Domain

THERE'S A LIVELY range war in progress between the cowboys at the big Bantam Books spread and the sheepherders from Carroll & Graf, a 100- title-a-year firm. Who are the good guys and who are the villains? Heck, it depends on who you talk to. Bantam's No. 1 gun, Louis L'Amour, has a very clear opinion. He calls the new Carroll & Graf publication of two paperback collections of stories by him -- Riding for the Brand and Dutchman's Flat -- "outrageous and unfair."

How did this publishing war come about? It seems that L'Amour wrote the stories in question in pulp magazines during the '40s, but when the deadline for copyright renewal came up after 28 years, he failed to renew. So the stories are legally in the public domain. Any sodbuster can publish them.

In 1983, Carroll & Graf -- a New York firm known for its (uncontested) reprints of authors such as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Paul Scott -- issued two volumes of public domain stories by L'Amour, westerns called Law of the Desert Born and detective tales titled The Hills of Homicide. Before publication, C&G offered L'Amour royalties on the books. Bantam sued. In the agreement that ended the action, Bantam acknowledged that Carroll & Graf had a legal right to publish the stories, while the smaller firm agreed to make clear on its books that they were in no way authorized by L'Amour. They also agreed not to imitate the look Bantam had already established for the L'Amour paperbacks.

Carroll & Graf announced in its catalogue of last December that it would be issuing two further collections of L'Amour stories, again from the public domain. But, as was the case in 1983, Bantam reacted quickly to the Carroll & Graf announcement. This time Bantam moveo fast it actually beat the smaller firm to the market with the same titles, publishing them February 19, with the author's notes and introductions by L'Amour himself.

According to Kent Carroll, publisher of Carroll & Graf, "Bantam apparently saw what we were doing, and using the titles we had selected, they managed to get the books out." Carroll said his 1983 editions of the L'Amour stories had sold "a few hundred thousand each, a lot less than Bantam," and he expected to sell similar amounts of the new volumes. According to Bantam, it already has 800,000 copies each of Riding for the Brand and Dutchman's Flat in print.

All in all, Carroll seemed unperturbed by the brouhaha. He said the 1983 books were still on his backlist and had a steady sale. "Because we are a small firm, with low overhead, we can make a good profit on a sale of 100,000 books. The publication of these titles is perfectly legal. We have made clear on the back covers that they are not authorized by L'Amour. I tink it's nice to see a little guy stand up for his rights against a giant Bantam."

L'Amour could not disagree more. In his introduction to Dutchman's Flat (as with Riding for the Brand, the title is taken from the lead story), the author says, "I'll never autograph any unauthorized editions of my books. As far as I'm concerned, they simply don't exist." The Roman Army

ON MARCH 15 -- the Ides -- Seven Locks Press of Cabin John, Md., will publish Soldiers of Rome by Col. Robert F. Evans (U.S. Army Ret.), a resident of Georgetown. The book had its genesis in a 1978 visit by Evans to Hadrian's Wall in Britain. "I began to wonder about the Roman legions that built the wall," he explains, "and started to do some research on them. Three of the 30 Roman legions were involved. After I found out about them. I decided I might as well do the other 27, too. I did most of the research in the Library of Congress."

Col. Evans' researches on the Roman legions (which had 5,000 members apiece) form the second half of the book and are presented as a kind of intelligence report on each legion. The approach is not so unusual when you consider that Evans was in intelligence for most of his 30 years in the United States Army. His investigation of the legions led him to further work on the Praetorian Guard -- another part of the Roman Army.

Founded by the Emperor Augustus about 27 B.C. as a kind of bodyguard for the emperor, the Praetorians also garrisoned cities in the Italian peninsula. Since they went on to dethrone a dozen emperors, the Praetorians got a bad press from historians of the time, but Evans defends their skill and courage and says that the defeat of the Praetorians at the hands of the Emperor Constantine in 312 A.D. symbolized the end of imperial Rome.

In one fascinating passage, Evans discusses the arms carried by the Praetorians, which were similar to those of the legionnaires. Each soldier carried a par of seven- foot-long spears, which were the first weapons used in an engagement. The spears had wooden shafts and bendable metal points, which prevented their reuse by the enemy if they missed their target. After the spear attack, the Roman soldier would employ his two-foot-long, double-edged sword. He did not slash with it in the expansive Errol Flynn manner, but thrust it forward. "Barbarians slashed," says Evans. "Romans thrust."

For his next project, Evans is investigating the third part of the Roman army, the auxiliaries, which consisted of 150,000 noncitizens of Rome. They were paid considerably less than legionnaires or Praetorians, but at the end of their service they got citizenship and became exempt from taxes. Evans believes the centurion in the New Testament who said of Jesus, "there truly was the son of God," was probably a member of an auxiliary cohort and he is trying to identify the unit.

Soldiers of Rome is 192 pages long and will sell for $17.95. It has an introduction by Maj. Gen. Edward B. Atkeson (Ret.), former deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Army, Europe. Hailing Dr. Seuss

ABOUT 100 PEOPLE gathered recently in the New York Public Library to fete Theodor Seuss Geisel -- Dr. Seuss -- on his 82d birthday and to congratulate him on his 54th book, You're Only Old Once. Although the new volume looks from the outside like a traditional Dr. Seuss children's book, his publisher, Random House, which hosted the bash, is selling it to an adult market. It is a wry account of a senior citizen's visit for a check-up to the "Golden Years Clinic."

Many of the partygoers were former colleagues, some of whom remembered Seuss when he was an advertising hotshot not long out of Dartmouth who became nationally known for inventing the insect-spray slogan "Quick, Henry, the Flit." The honoree himself was at the front of the room, standing under TV lights. He was wearing a dapper three-piece gray suit, white shirt with French cuffs, paisley bow tie, and Italianate gray shoes that would make Marcello Mastroianni weep with envy. Smiling, chatting, sipping a glass of white wine, this octogenerian looked like he'd just gotten up from an afternoon nap. In fact, he had just come from three hours at a local store where he had signed 1,300 copies of his new book.

One of those in attendance was an alumnus of the Dr. Seuss staff who has gone on to great things himself -- Michael Frith, executive vice president for art and design of Henson Associates, producers of the Muppets. "Actually," said Frith, "this is not Ted's first first adult book. In the 1940s, when Bennett Cerf was trying to lure Ted to Random House, he agreed to publish a manuscript of a humor book he had written called The Seven Lady Godivas. It's a collector's item now."

Accepting a plaque from Robert Bernstein of Random House, Dr. Seuss recalled a similar gathering to markhis 80th birthday two years before. "At that time, I called you all together to help abolish nuclear weapons," he said. "You all know that turned out. Now we have a new goal -- to abolish old age. Our lobby is having a hell of a time getting it by the White House." In the Margin

WINNER OF THE $5,000 New Voice Award of the Quality Paperback Book Club for a novel published in 1985 is Richard Perry. Montgomery's Children is the third novel by the New Jersey resident who grew up in Monticello, New York. The plot centers on the lives of several black families living in the small town of Montgomery, New York. Perry, who has a master's degree in writing from Columbia, teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. . . . British mystery writer P.D. James will publish her first work of nonfiction with the Mysterious Press, an arm of Warner Books, on March 25. Titled The Maul and the Pear Tree, it focuses on the brutal Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, which provoked nationwide panic and a demand for reform of the police. Collaborating with James on the book was police historian T.A. Critchley. (Wasn't it Rumpole of the Old Bailey who handled the defense in the Ratcliffe Highway Murders? Or was that another case?) . . . Another import from Britain's shores is A Turn of Traitors by Palma Harcourt, who writes espionage novels with a diplomatic setting and has been compared with Helen McInnes. Jove, the paperback house that is part of the Berkley Publishing Group, will do the Harcourt novel this month and follow it with seven more titles by her through May of 1987.