"Let's rest these people," Kirk commanded.
McCoy nearly dropped to his knees. They had been running for over three hours at a fast clip and honestly he thought he couldn't take another step. His breath rasped in his throat, his heart was pounding. He cursed his heavy black tunic, drenched with sweat. They had all donned the Vadarian formal dress for the ceremony - a trap to which they had lost four crewmen, from which they had saved twelve of the forty-three counselors.
How they had kept up, without complaint, was beyond the Doctor. Composing himself, he took them in. They must all be over eighty years old and they looked it, too. He knew Vadarians were closely related to Vulcans – though without the trademark pointy ears – and as strong, but still he was surprised to see that there was not a bead of sweat on them. They hardly seemed to need the help of the crew – precious few of them, the Captain, Spock, Kline, and Sarrok - to sit down on the rocks strewn along the bottom of the canyon.
"Kline, over there," Kirk ordered when everyone was settled. He was badly out of breath, but he was ignoring it. "Sarrok, over there. Spock, check our rear. Try to see if you can pick up their readings. I'll look at what's ahead. Doctor, assess the condition of the council members. See if we can move on in ten minutes."
They crew fanned out from the center, where McCoy turned his attention to the elders. These wiry people were hardly out of breath and would be ready in ten minutes - unlike himself, perhaps, he admitted with some embarrassment. How close could the border of the Vadarian field be? Had they shaken off their pursuers?
He was kneeling next to the toughest octogenarian he had ever met when her toothless amusement at his attention faded and her eyes clouded with concern.
"Hih," she uttered, jutting out her sharp chin, "shoshek?"
McCoy didn't have to question what "shoshek" meant. A glance in the direction she had indicated set off all his alarm bells at once.
Kirk, who had taken up position fifty feet away, was leaning, almost doubled over, against the rock wall. His right arm was slung protectively around his middle. McCoy couldn't see the Captain's face, but his posture spoke of pain.
"Dammit!" McCoy swore.
Grabbing his medkit, he jumped up and swiftly approached the Captain.
"What!" Kirk protested , spinning around as soon as the medical sensor started to whirr. Then he winced, his flushed face drained of color, and McCoy had to grab his elbow to keep him from collapsing outright. With the Doctor's support, Kirk barely made it to the nearest rock, where he sat down with a groan.
"You're injured!" the Doctor hissed. He started to pull back Kirk's black tunic, shiny and heavy with blood. He cursed himself for his inattention. He had been concerned with the elders, and himself, and of course Kirk hadn't let on, but he should have known.
"A scratch," Kirk asserted through clenched teeth. His face was sickly pale and beaded with sweat, but his eyes were afire with his indomitable will fighting for control.
"You were stabbed, Jim! It missed your vital organs – only just – but you've lost a lot of blood. You should've-"
"-What? Stopped and let you slap a bandaid on? We had to get out of there. And we move on in five minutes."
"We're not leaving here until I've stopped the bleeding, Captain!" McCoy ordered.
He knew that in this situation he could pull as much medical rank as he wanted, but the outcome would be the same. He just wanted to buy as much time as he could to do the minimal.
He carefully peeled back the last layer of clothing and quickly pressed a dressing to the small but deep wound, gushing blood. Kirk's sharp intake of breath almost made him take pity.
"Press as hard as you can," he instructed, taking Kirk's right hand – clammy, trembling – and guiding it onto the gauze. Then he set the hypospray and administered a shot. "For the pain, and to fight off the infection," he explained.
Spock had surveyed the situation in a second.
McCoy hesitated – bad – and Kirk took advantage.
"How far to the border, Spock?" he cut in.
The Vulcan, who had made no indication of surprise or concern, glanced at the doctor, who returned his most troubled frown.
"Another two miles, Captain."
Kirk merely nodded, the fire in his eyes rapidly dying. McCoy feared he was going to faint, and no wonder. They should have stopped earlier. He took away the bandage, already saturated with blood, and taped a fresh one in place - for all the good that was going to do.
"Sol is a mile behind us now and gaining fast," Spock added. "They're on our trail. I doubt we can make it, Captain."
Kirk nodded again, grim.
"Break up camp," he said softly. "Get the refugees going. Set up a strategic post, up there, in that cleft in the ridge. I'll hold them off as long as I can."
"Captain," Spock began, but stopped.
McCoy couldn't believe his ears.
"Jim!" he yelled, enraged. "You can't be serious!"
"Spock, get them going now. Bones, help me to get up there, will you?"
If he hadn't had to hold up the Captain, McCoy would have grabbed Spock by the arm, but Spock was already moving away, without a fight, without even the smallest sign of objection.
"Jim, we can't leave you here!" McCoy bit, from anger and hopelessness as much as from exertion. Kirk was leaning heavily on him. How he had run this far…
"You can and you will," Kirk said quietly. He was rapidly losing strength, and that and the final tone of his words made McCoy cease his protests.
Soon the others had overtaken them. When they arrived at the notch, Spock had just finished setting up. He came forward and helped McCoy position Kirk against a gently sloping slab in front of a narrow gap. The Captain sighed in relief. He rested the back of his head against the sun-warmed stone and closed his eyes.
McCoy knelt beside him.
"Jim…" he tried on last time.
Kirk opened his eyes.
"Give me something, Bones, to keep me conscious. If I hold them off long enough you can make it. That's all the matters now, you hear?"
McCoy nodded once. Setting the hypo he mumbled, "I hear but I don't have to like it." He jabbed Kirk in the arm. Then he saw the Captain's gentle smile and grumbled, "And you'd better be alive when we come back for you, 'cause I'm gonna kill you for pulling this stunt!"
Kirk nodded, attempting a serious face. "It's a deal, Bones," he said softly. "Spock?"
Even in his distress, McCoy didn't miss Spock's slight hesitation, and the way the Vulcan's first word stuck in his throat.
"Captain-Jim. You will see them coming from here," Spock said. "I suggest you fire at that overhang when they reach that point in the path. One blast can take out a few of them. I also positioned a phaser over there. It is aimed straight at the curve in the path, over there. The communicator acts as a remote."
The Vulcan hesitated for a second. He gently took Kirk's left hand, opened the weakly curled-up fingers and placed the communicator in the palm, then tenderly cupped the hand closed around it.
Kirk too was speechless. He looked at his hand, held by Spock's warm, slender hands.
"Go now," he whispered, keeping his eyes on his hand. Then his head snapped up. "Quickly," he said fiercely, briefly taking both of them in. "Go!"
Spock stood and pulled McCoy up by his arm. McCoy needed the Vulcan's help as they stumbled away. Then they ran.