It was scarcely probable that they would pass without attacking them. On the contrary, there was everything to be feared from robbers such as these.
"Do not be afraid, Nadia," said Michael; "but be ready for anything."
"I am ready," replied Nadia.
"Even to leap into the water when I tell you?"
"Whenever you tell me."
"Have confidence in me, Nadia."
"I have, indeed!"
The Tartar boats were now only a hundred feet distant. They carried a detachment of Bokharian soldiers, on their way to reconnoiter around Omsk.
The ferryboat was still two lengths from the shore. The boatmen redoubled their efforts. Michael himself seized a pole and wielded it with superhuman strength. If he could land the tarantass and horses, and dash off with them, there was some chance of escaping the Tartars, who were not mounted.
But all their efforts were in vain. "Saryn na kitchou!" shouted the soldiers from the first boat.
Michael recognized the Tartar war-cry, which is usually answered by lying flat on the ground. As neither he nor the boatmen obeyed a volley was let fly, and two of the horses were mortally wounded.
At the next moment a violent blow was felt. The boats had run into the ferryboat.
"Come, Nadia!" cried Michael, ready to jump overboard.
The girl was about to follow him, when a blow from a lance struck him, and he was thrown into the water. The current swept him away, his hand raised for an instant above the waves, and then he disappeared.
Nadia uttered a cry, but before she had time to throw herself after him she was seized and dragged into one of the boats. The boatmen were killed, the ferryboat left to drift away, and the Tartars continued to descend the Irtych.
CHAPTER XIV MOTHER AND SON
OMSK is the official capital of Western Siberia. It is not the most important city of the government of that name, for Tomsk has more inhabitants and is larger. But it is at Omsk that the Governor-General of this the first half of Asiatic Russia resides. Omsk, properly so called, is composed of two distinct towns: one which is exclusively inhabited by the authorities and officials; the other more especially devoted to the Siberian merchants, although, indeed, the trade of the town is of small importance.
This city has about 12,000 to 13,000 inhabitants. It is defended by walls, but these are merely of earth, and could afford only insufficient protection. The Tartars, who were well aware of this fact, consequently tried at this period to carry it by main force, and in this they succeeded, after an investment of a few days.
The garrison of Omsk, reduced to two thousand men, resisted valiantly. But driven back, little by little, from the mercantile portion of the place, they were compelled to take refuge in the upper town.
It was there that the Governor-General, his officers, and soldiers had entrenched themselves. They had made the upper quarter of Omsk a kind of citadel, and hitherto they held out well in this species of improvised "kreml," but without much hope of the promised succor. The Tartar troops, who were descending the Irtych, received every day fresh reinforcements, and, what was more serious, they were led by an officer, a traitor to his country, but a man of much note, and of an audacity equal to any emergency. This man was Colonel Ivan Ogareff.
Ivan Ogareff, terrible as any of the most savage Tartar chieftains, was an educated soldier. Possessing on his mother's side some Mongolian blood, he delighted in deceptive strategy and ambuscades, stopping short of nothing when he desired to fathom some secret or to set some trap. Deceitful by nature, he willingly had recourse to the vilest trickery; lying when occasion demanded, excelling in the adoption of all disguises and in every species of deception. Further, he was cruel, and had even acted as an executioner. Feofar-Khan possessed in him a lieutenant well capable of seconding his designs in this savage war.
When Michael Strogoff arrived on the banks of the Irtych, Ivan Ogareff was already master of Omsk, and was pressing the siege of the upper quarter of the town all the more eagerly because he must hasten to Tomsk, where the main body of the Tartar army was concentrated.