The storm now raged with redoubled fury. A perfect avalanche of stones and trunks of trees began to roll down the slope above them.
"We cannot stop here," said Michael.
"We cannot stop anywhere," returned the iemschik, all his energies apparently overcome by terror. "The storm will soon send us to the bottom of the mountain, and that by the shortest way."
"Take you that horse, coward," returned Michael, "I'll look after this one."
A fresh burst of the storm interrupted him. The driver and he were obliged to crouch upon the ground to avoid being blown down. The carriage, notwithstanding their efforts and those of the horses, was gradually blown back, and had it not been stopped by the trunk of a tree, it would have gone over the edge of the precipice.
"Do not be afraid, Nadia!" cried Michael Strogoff.
"I'm not afraid," replied the young Livonian, her voice not betraying the slightest emotion.
The rumbling of the thunder ceased for an instant, the terrible blast had swept past into the gorge below.
"Will you go back?" said the iemschik.
"No, we must go on! Once past this turning, we shall have the shelter of the slope."
"But the horses won't move!"
"Do as I do, and drag them on."
"The storm will come back!"
"Do you mean to obey?"
"Do you order it?"
"The Father orders it!" answered Michael, for the first time invoking the all-powerful name of the Emperor.
"Forward, my swallows!" cried the iemschik, seizing one horse, while Michael did the same to the other.
Thus urged, the horses began to struggle onward. They could no longer rear, and the middle horse not being hampered by the others, could keep in the center of the road. It was with the greatest difficulty that either man or beasts could stand against the wind, and for every three steps they took in advance, they lost one, and even two, by being forced backwards. They slipped, they fell, they got up again. The vehicle ran a great risk of being smashed. If the hood had not been securely fastened, it would have been blown away long before. Michael Strogoff and the iemschik took more than two hours in getting up this bit of road, only half a verst in length, so directly exposed was it to the lashing of the storm. The danger was not only from the wind which battered against the travelers, but from the avalanche of stones and broken trunks which were hurtling through the air.
Suddenly, during a flash of lightning, one of these masses was seen crashing and rolling down the mountain towards the tarantass. The iemschik uttered a cry.
Michael Strogoff in vain brought his whip down on the team, they refused to move.
A few feet farther on, and the mass would pass behind them! Michael saw the tarantass struck, his companion crushed; he saw there was no time to drag her from the vehicle.
Then, possessed in this hour of peril with superhuman strength, he threw himself behind it, and planting his feet on the ground, by main force placed it out of danger.
The enormous mass as it passed grazed his chest, taking away his breath as though it had been a cannon-ball, then crushing to powder the flints on the road, it bounded into the abyss below.
"Oh, brother!" cried Nadia, who had seen it all by the light of the flashes.
"Nadia!" replied Michael, "fear nothing!"
"It is not on my own account that I fear!"
"God is with us, sister!"
"With me truly, brother, since He has sent thee in my way!" murmured the young girl.
The impetus the tarantass had received was not to be lost, and the tired horses once more moved forward. Dragged, so to speak, by Michael and the iemschik, they toiled on towards a narrow pass, lying north and south, where they would be protected from the direct sweep of the tempest. At one end a huge rock jutted out, round the summit of which whirled an eddy. Behind the shelter of the rock there was a comparative calm; yet once within the circumference of the cyclone, neither man nor beast could resist its power.
Indeed, some firs which towered above this protection were in a trice shorn of their tops, as though a gigantic scythe had swept across them. The storm was now at its height.