“What the fuc…” Cade Weston pulled up on the reins and stared, uncertain, at the couple ahead of him. Had he just witnessed the flabby-armed, potbellied man slap the woman cowering at his feet? Or had his eyesight been unfocused? He had been woolgathering about returning home after a two-year absence, celebrating Christmas with his family and—
Sonofabitch! The bastard slapped her again, with enough force to snap her neck to the right.
Easing his pistol out of his holster, Cade nudged his mount forward. “Hold up, there,” he called to the couple, aiming his Colt at the man’s head. “You strike her again and you’re a dead man.”
The stranger glanced over his shoulder. His hooded eyes gave Cade the once over. “Get lost,” he snarled before spitting into the grass. “This here don’t concern you.”
“It does,” Cade said evenly. He halted his mustang, kept his gun trained on the bushy-haired fellow while sliding a glance toward the woman. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
“She’s fine. Ain’t that right, honey?” He took a step toward the saddled horse at his left.
Feeding on the dead grass, the mare was bony. Flies buzzed around a scrape on the tip of her ear and the bare patches along her rump. Clumps of dirt stuck to her mangy coat, causing Cade to grind his teeth. He loathed seeing an animal mistreated, but at the moment, there was little he could do to help the pinto. And plenty he could do to help the woman.
“I’ll hear her answer.” He dropped a hard look on the burly man. “You’ll do yourself good to stay put and keep your hands where I can see them.” He eased out of the saddle, went to the mare and removed a rifle from the scabbard. Holding it firmly in his left hand, he motioned with his Colt for the stranger to move away from the woman. He did, and Cade approached her.
Dark, red hair tangled and unwashed, a thin body trembling beneath a stained, torn dress that had once been blue; he knelt in front of her. “Ma’am, is it true? You’re unharmed?”
Keeping her face averted, she nodded. He didn’t believe her. If she was fine, she wouldn’t hide from him.
Setting the rifle aside, he tucked his finger beneath her chin and turned her head toward him, felt an imaginary fist slug him in the gut when her frightened eyes of jade met his. She was young. More importantly, beneath the dirt and bruises marring her skin lurked the face of an angel.
“You did this to her?” Cade swung his gaze toward her companion, the urge to pummel him strong.
He spit into the grass again, unbothered by Cade’s outrage. “She took a tumble down the side of a hill. Lucky she didn’t break her neck.”
“Damn lucky I don’t break your neck,” Cade murmured