Hell-for-Leather Rider by "Jake Foster" (1991)
The men behind the "Jake Foster" house name this time are James Reasoner and Ed Gorman, two of the best western writers we have today.
Young Jim McReady has a low opinion of himself. He's a coward and a drifter. Escaped from an East Coast reform school and wanted by the police for a crime he didn't commit, Jim has been moving ever westward, running -- in part -- from himself. We first meet him as he is finishing a grueling ten-mile walk across some badlands to the town of Flat Rock, exhausted, feet blistered and swollen, with only a dollar to his name. Jim makes a deal with Deakins, Flat Rock's livery owner, for work in exchange for sleeping in one of the stalls. Soon this becomes a permanent arrangement as Deakins recognizes that Jim has some grit in him.
A flyer in town announces that the Pony Express is coming to Flat Rock and that riders are needed. Jim applies for one of the jobs and, despite his being a novice rider, is hired. Jim is given clothes, a bible, and weapons, and is briefly shown how to use the weapons. His route from Flat Rock to Moss City ndiancovers forty miles and passes through the Prophet Mountains, the home of the legendary outlaw who calls himself Nightshade. Nightshade has been terrorizing the area for twenty years. The cowled figure dressed in black has reached mythic proportions in that area, bringing more fear than even the Piute indians who live and range by the Prophets.
On his very first run, Jim is handed off the mail pouches he is to deliver to Moss City. He has to wait a moment, though, to add one letter to the pouch and notices that it is address to a Miss Virginia Rawlings. Feeling important and a little bit nervous, Jim heads out and, as he enters the Prophet Mountains, is waylaid by Nightshade and his gang. Left without his pouches, Jim continues on to Moss City in failure and knowing he will probably be fired once he returns to Flat Rock.
Of all the mail he was to deliver, Jim knows only one name, Virginia Rawlings, the name on the letter he was handed back in Flat Rock. He decides to find her, apologize for losing her letter and explain what happened. Virginia, of course, turns out to be a pretty girl his age. She reacts badly to the news that the letter had been stolen. Her father has spent the last eight years in prison and the letter contained information that would prove his innocence. Jim is determined to redeem himself by trying to retrieve the letter from Nightshade...and if he failed, well, his life wasn't worth much anyway.
The girl is determined to go with him in search of Nightshade and her letter. The trek is dangerous and the two continually face death at the hands of rogue trappers, indians, and a gang or rival outlaws before coming face to face with Nightshade himself and the truth about who is behind the black cowl.
Although relying a bit too much on coincidence, Hell-for-Leather Rider is a good read that provides strong character development, fast-paced action, and a possibly supernatural tone. Paperback copies may be difficult to find but luckily the novel has been released as an e-Book under the title The Man from Nightshade Valley and under the authors' true names.