The life of of a tick rider on the Rio Grande has never been easy, but Mark Smith wasn't one to complain. He didn't complain about riding out alone on horseback to rope wild cattle and check them for parasites. He didn't complain about the rain, or the 120-degree heat, or the $16,500-a-year salary that goes with being a GS-7 government cowboy.

Last March an unidentified person along the border--probably a smuggler--took a shot at Smith. Smith brought his saddle to Washington to show a congressional hearing how the bullet had struck his pommel. After helping make the point that tick riders ought to be allowed to carry firearms, he went back to Texas and resumed his daily rounds. About a week later he was shot in the back. The doctors left the bullet in, and soon he was back, riding, roping and inspecting for ticks.

Congress got the point, and has since passed a bill that will not only arm each tick rider with a Smith-and-Wesson revolver, but will send each of them to a two-week training course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy in Glynco, Ga.

It doesn't look as though Mark Smith will be going, however. He and 10 other tick riders have been asked to volunteer for transfers to Puerto Rico, Idaho, Louisiana or Oklahoma. If they don't take the transfers, they'll be RIFed.

It seems that the guns and training the cowboys won will be paid for by a reduction in their numbers from 80 to 69.

"Puerto Rico?" Smith said yesterday on the phone from Laredo, Tex. "I could go but I'm not going to. Wouldn't see my son, nohow, if I was down there. I've got some cowboying jobs lined up. No way I'm going to take a transfer."

"It has the appearance of a type of reprisal," said Tom Deats, a tick rider who is president of Local 3106 of the American Federation of Government Employees in Del Rio, Tex., which represents the government's cowboys. "The legislation we wanted came through, but they took it out of our own budget. It cost us 11 men.

"They sure offered these guys some enticing alternatives. The beautiful banks of Puerto Rico don't make much sense when you've lived all your life along the Rio Grande. Neither does Idaho Falls, Idaho, working with hogs. Or going to Louisiana to check up on birds. One of these openings is in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, taking blood samples of cows. It just isn't the same work. There's no horses, and it doesn't require near the expertise of tracking and apprehending animals on international border patrol. These men won't do it, either. They'll go to a-cowboyin' for somebody else. It's all they know."

The tick riders, who have been patrolling the Rio Grande since 1906, have a pastoral mission. In a border area rife with smuggling, illegal immigration and drug traffic, their enemy is the disease-carrying tick. They work alone, on their own horses, out of communication with their base. Satisfaction, to tick riders, is encountering a wild steer in a desolate arroyo, lassoing it and making a close-up inspection for ticks without getting kicked, charged or stepped on.

They are a taciturn bunch. Asked what there was to keep a tick rider from inspecting cattle from "afar" rather than risking a tug of war with a 1,500-pound beast, Mark Smith replied: "Huh?"

The tick riders' code, Tom Deats suggests, does not travel well. Not to Puerto Rico, not even to Washington, D.C.

"We've been fighting with the USDA for years," he said. "We once had 98 people to patrol 900 river miles, and now we're going to do it with 69? This is really going to hurt the tick-eradication program. As indicated in the past, the USDA will wait for an epidemic outbreak, and then there'll have to be massive hiring again."

John K. Atwell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told of Deats' charge that the granting of firearms to the tick riders cost them 11 of their number, said, "You can put that interpretation on it. Or you can say we're just trying to stay within the funding limits of the agency. A review team studied the tick-rider program and decided some reductions could be made.

"Our position is that we don't think this will weaken the tick program. Of course, if there's a big outbreak in a few months, they'll say it was our fault. But there have been big outbreaks even when we've had a full force of tick riders."