However, at last the tarantass started, and made such good way that by three in the afternoon it had reached Koulatsinskoe, fifty miles farther on. An hour after this it was on the banks of the Irtych. Omsk was now only fourteen miles distant.
The Irtych is a large river, and one of the principal of those which flow towards the north of Asia. Rising in the Altai Mountains, it flows from the southeast to the northwest and empties itself into the Obi, after a course of four thousand miles.
At this time of year, when all the rivers of the Siberian basin are much swollen, the waters of the Irtych were very high. In consequence the current was changed to a regular torrent, rendering the passage difficult enough. A swimmer could not have crossed, however powerful; and even in a ferryboat there would be some danger.
But Michael and Nadia, determined to brave all perils whatever they might be, did not dream of shrinking from this one. Michael proposed to his young companion that he should cross first, embarking in the ferryboat with the tarantass and horses, as he feared that the weight of this load would render it less safe. After landing the carriage he would return and fetch Nadia.
The girl refused. It would be the delay of an hour, and she would not, for her safety alone, be the cause of it.
The embarkation was made not without difficulty, for the banks were partly flooded and the boat could not get in near enough. However, after half an hour's exertion, the boatmen got the tarantass and the three horses on board. The passengers embarked also, and they shoved off.
For a few minutes all went well. A little way up the river the current was broken by a long point projecting from the bank, and forming an eddy easily crossed by the boat. The two boatmen propelled their barge with long poles, which they handled cleverly; but as they gained the middle of the stream it grew deeper and deeper, until at last they could only just reach the bottom. The ends of the poles were only a foot above the water, which rendered their use difficult. Michael and Nadia, seated in the stern of the boat, and always in dread of a delay, watched the boatmen with some uneasiness.
"Look out!" cried one of them to his comrade.
The shout was occasioned by the new direction the boat was rapidly taking. It had got into the direct current and was being swept down the river. By diligent use of the poles, putting the ends in a series of notches cut below the gunwale, the boatmen managed to keep the craft against the stream, and slowly urged it in a slanting direction towards the right bank.
They calculated on reaching it some five or six versts below the landing place; but, after all, that would not matter so long as men and beasts could disembark without accident. The two stout boatmen, stimulated moreover by the promise of double fare, did not doubt of succeeding in this difficult passage of the Irtych.
But they reckoned without an accident which they were powerless to prevent, and neither their zeal nor their skill-fulness could, under the circumstances, have done more.
The boat was in the middle of the current, at nearly equal distances from either shore, and being carried down at the rate of two versts an hour, when Michael, springing to his feet, bent his gaze up the river.
Several boats, aided by oars as well as by the current, were coming swiftly down upon them.
Michael's brow contracted, and a cry escaped him.
"What is the matter?" asked the girl.
But before Michael had time to reply one of the boatmen exclaimed in an accent of terror:
"The Tartars! the Tartars!"
There were indeed boats full of soldiers, and in a few minutes they must reach the ferryboat, it being too heavily laden to escape from them.
The terrified boatmen uttered exclamations of despair and dropped their poles.
"Courage, my friends!" cried Michael; "courage! Fifty roubles for you if we reach the right bank before the boats overtake us."
Incited by these words, the boatmen again worked manfully but it soon become evident that they could not escape the Tartars.