Young Mr. Segal stepped toward Lily and announced to the crowd. “Now I’m going to examine my subject to ensure that she has fully emerged from her trance. This is a process that requires a careful observation of the pupils.”
He leaned forward with his nose inches from Lily’s and tilted his head so that his lips were hidden from the audience and his head blocked the view of her face.
“What’s the problem?” he whispered.
“A man. A very bad man. In the audience.”
“Big guy in the back? Came in during your act?”
She nodded. “I can’t talk to my dogs when he’s here.”
“Then let me take care of everything.”
At that, Segal smiled at Lily, then turned and addresses the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, while we’re waiting for Lillian to completely recover from my mesmeric spell, I would like to introduce you to my good friend, the Bulldog Kid.” Segal pointed to a thin youth in the front row, who began to shake his head and mouth words of resistance. “You may know the Bulldog Kid from his amazing feats of marksmanship at Wild West shows and Chautauquas from Virginia to Montreal. Bulldog and I recently set off for California to launch our own show in the Golden State and, on a whim, we made a detour to your fine community so we could see what the fuss was all about. Now, surprisingly, for the fastest gun on either side of the Mississippi, Bulldog is shy. But I am certain we could entice him to provide us with a demonstration of his shooting prowess if we all put our hands together.”
Segal began to clap, slowly and gently, and increased both the force and rate of his applause as the audience members joined in. The thin youth, one eye nearly obscured by a loose strand of his long blond hair, his writs poking out from the cuffs of a worn coat he had outgrown, took the stage.
In her years with the circus, Lily had heard a great many discussions of other acts on the circus. Trick shooters were not uncommon, and in fact Uncle Stanislas had proposed prior to the trip west that a shooter would be a good addition to the show. But she had never heard of a skinny, young, fast-gun artist known as the Bulldog Kid, nor a mesmerist named Segal.
Lily could see Uncle Stanislas watching the two young imposters. He took a step out when the Bulldog Kid began to ascend the stage, then appeared to change his mind. He stopped and turned to restrain Mr. Szabo from entering the ring. Apparently, his businessman’s instinct to end this unexpected and unrehearsed interruption lost out to his showman’s desire to see magic in the moment.
“Kid, show ‘em the Bulldogs,” Segal said.
The thin youth glared at Segal and reddened, either in anger or embarrassment or both.
“What? Are you waiting to be mesmerized?”
A gasp rose from the audience when they realized the Bulldog Kid now sported a short snub-nose revolver in each hand, though none had seen the hands reach into holsters or pockets. At the same moment, Segal produced a deck of cards from his inside coat pocket.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I am going to give you just the briefest indication of the remarkable shooting talents of the Bulldog Kid.”
Riffling through the deck with the deftness of a card shark, he produced a pair of face cards and flourished them to the audience. He handed the cards to Lily. Then he returned to the side of the Bulldog Kid, asked his friend to follow him, and led the young gunman to a place on the back bench beside the wolfer.
“In a moment, ladies and gentlemen, I will return to the middle of the ring to provide the Bulldog Kid with a target. Don’t worry, we have not recruited the lovely and talented Miss Lillian to undertake this hazardous task.”
From the distance, Lily could see Segal and the Bulldog Kid engage in a short stare-down, after which the tall youth stepped to his left and placed his lips next to the ear of the wolfer, still standing in the back row. The wolfer turned quickly to look at Segal and the young gunman. But any confrontation was prevented when Segal turned and ran back to the ring.
“I gotta tell you, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been trying to teach Bulldog to play poker and it’s been kind of like trying to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig. It was enough of a challenge just teaching him to identify the different kinds of cards.”
At this, he produced the deck from which he had removed the two cards he’d handed to Lily. He quickly pulled the other ten face cards from the deck and held them up, fanned out, toward the audience with one hand. With the other, he reached for the two cards Lily held.
“Those of you seated in the front row will see that Lillian here was holding the two one-eyed jacks. And I am now going to shuffle them in with the remaining face cards to create a deck of twelve cards: kings, queens, and jacks. Lillian, if you would like to place these twelve cards in any assortment you would like, facing up, on the ground here in the ring, that would be most appreciated. I will block the Bulldog Kid’s view of the cards. He will have no way of knowing where the various kings, queens, and jacks have been placed.”
Lily was becoming intrigued by the impromptu performance and could see that the audience’s attention was riveted. One way or another, they were in for something unexpected. Either they’d see a great feat of marksmanship, or a ridiculous fraud, which in its own way they might find even more entertaining.
Segal removed his coat and held it out like a cape and directed Lily to lay out the cards in the area below and behind it where the trick shooter would be unable to see them. When Lily finished, Segal directed her to move to the side. He asked audience members seated directly under the path a bullet would take to move to either side.
“On the count of three I am going to move out of the way so that the Bulldog Kid can see these cards. He will then shoot the two one-eyed jacks, but only the one-eyed jacks, and he will do so immediately after I move. Audience, are you ready? Bulldog, are you?”
The Bulldog Kid, a revolver in each hand, let out a sigh that was audible throughout the tent, otherwise quiet as a tomb. Segal stepped aside, and immediately a pair of gunshots echoed through the tent, prompting a chorus of gasps and several shrieks. With a cloud of gun smoke drifting through the air of the tent, Segal bent and picked up two cards. He handed them to an audience member in the front row, then bent and picked up the remaining cards.
“Can you tell the audience which cards the Bulldog Kid hit?”
The audience member stood, held out the cards, and said, “The jack of hearts and the jack of spades.”
“And those are the one-eyed jacks?”
Segal turned to the audience, lifted the cards aloft so all could see the hold driven through the face in each, then directed his right hand toward the marksman and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one and only Bulldog Kid.”
When the applause died down, he stared pointedly at the wolfer and said, “I tell you folks, I’m glad he’s my friend. I wouldn’t want to be his enemy. Or the enemy of a friend of his.”
The wolfer glared at Segal and Lily and crept out of the tent. Lily heard the barking of his hounds recede into the distance. She looked to the side of the tent, saw Uncle Stanislas beaming, looked at the smiling and astonished faces in the audience, and mouthed her thanks to Segal and his dangerous friend. Then she publicly thanked the great mesmerist, Myron Segal, and his colleague, the Bulldog Kid, opened her mind to her dogs, and closed the show with a well-executed round of canine baseball.
She still had an enemy in Deadwood, but she had made a friend. Two of them. And Deadwood seemed to be a place where you needed friends.
In the 1870’s, Daniel, an orphan, does anything he needs to do to survive on the streets of New York City, staying just out of reach of the men coming after him. He finds some kind people who take him in, but what he must do to earn his keep with the gang is not always on the up-and-up. Daniel demonstrates his astonishing skillset as a gunman and uses it to his advantage. In Tennessee, Lincoln, the son of former slaves, is a mathematics prodigy, with an interest in working on steam engines, just like his father. After his father’s death, he uses his special math skills to gain employment for a steam engine company to earn money for his family. Lily, an orphan working for a travelling circus, shares her unique talent of communicating with dogs with audiences across the west. The three prodigies unite when they all find themselves in Deadwood, South Dakota, during the mining boom, as they each attempt to stay alive, take care of their basic needs, joining forces to stay one step ahead of the criminals who are after each of them.
Set in the 1870’s, Prodigies weaves together the stories of three adolescents with special skillsets, who, despite their very different backgrounds and experiences, unite to take down criminals, including a greedy mining baron, corrupt businessmen, and a cunning wolfer who is wreaking havoc on both the humans and animals in the area. The book includes a unique and interesting cast of characters, including circus performers, engineers, businessmen and women, criminals and corrupt officials, lawyers, journalists, recent immigrants, and families of former slaves all trying to survive during the Gold Rush-era in Deadwood.
Author Bob Armstrong is an experienced novelist, playwright, and freelance writer. His previous novel, Dadolescence, was published in 2011. His short fiction has been published in various publications across Canada and the United States. His plays have been performed at fringe festivals and by professional companies in Western Canada. Recently, he has taken to writing creative non-fiction, including a memoir of cycling in Europe, an essay on paddling through the pandemic (published in The Globe and Mail, and a reflection on his experiences with cancer and stand-up comedy. He resides and writes in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
A prolific traveler, hiker, and observer of nature, Armstrong’s depictions of the settings present in Prodigies are based on his own explorations of the areas. Armstrong visited and conducted on-the-ground research in Deadwood, South Dakota, Tombstone, Arizona, and the streets of Lower Manhattan. Through this research, Armstrong was able to bring to life each of the settings in the book, creating much imagery for the reader to become immersed in the text. The vivid, accurate descriptions of each of the settings in the 1870’s advance the plot and the reader’s understanding of the historical and social themes presented in the text, including life for former slaves post-slavery abolishment, post-Civil War life in the Reconstruction Era in the north and south of the United States, immigration, economic inequality, robber barons with unethical and unscrupulous business practices that took advantage of people in the Old West, and the development of unions to support workers’ rights.
Armstrong blends together the three adolescents’ stories expertly and seamlessly. The book features spunky, determined teenagers who stand up for what is right, and they share many laughs along the way. Armstrong has created several strong, independent young female characters, including Lily, and Vera, the daughter of the editor-in-chief of the Black Hills newspaper, who defies her father, and, despite the danger this may pose to her, she embarks on her own to research and write stories about Daniel, the legendary sharpshooter known as the Bulldog Kid, someone whom everyone has been talking about. As a female reviewer, these aspects stood out to me, and I believe other readers will certainly observe and appreciate the inclusion of these feminist aspects. This is an especially appreciated detail as women’s suffrage was just in its infancy in the 1870’s, with women’s right to vote, for example, being still nearly 50 years in the future in both the United States and Canada. It was refreshing to see women framed in such a positive and empowering light and to read about characters who are fighting for their independence despite the upward battle at the time.
Prodigies is a unique text that expertly blends humour with serious topics and historical and social themes. The fact that each of the teen protagonists has an exceptional gift or skill adds a supernatural element to the text that is bound to make the reader root for each of them as they use these skills to fight against the antagonists they encounter. One of the best parts of the novel is that one can enter the text with minimal background knowledge of the Gold Rush-era, the American settings, or the social and historical elements present at the time, and become thoroughly engaged in the storyline, exiting the text having learned historical details along the way. This book would certainly be a text that is like no other on any library or classroom bookshelf.
Chasity Findlay is a graduate of the Master of Education program in Language and Literacy at the University of Manitoba and an avid reader of young adult fiction.