The Sleepers – A New Novel Extract by Molly Sturdevant

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Unpublished Books

Chapter One: A Morning Shift

Leadville Colorado, June 29, 1893

            From where Frances Byrne stood, Mount Massive was an inch tall. With her eyes narrowed, her fingers pinched to measure it, she plucked the beast mountain out of its range and set it in the palm of a child’s hand. It wasn’t funny this time. The boy wanted to see. Fran got down, touching the road with both hands. He climbed onto her shoulders.

The child pointed to the spindrift curling off Massive’s icy summit. Above it, a blue placental sky held back the infinite galaxies. Fran yawned. The previous night’s star-patterns and clusters had kept her awake too long— all the tailed supernovas, the heavy red giants— they spilled down to the forest floor where she’d gone walking, smoking, admiring the shining canopy until there was no point going back to bed, now the whole town was crowding the main street, pressing against her.

Bunting in the national colors hung from the rooftops. The drum major lifted his mace. Overnight, the smelter flumes on the south edge of town had produced a contrail of oiled fog, and every window in the bank’s top story reflected a share of the iridescent stripes. At the building’s entrance, dark three-piece suits stood like statues, for the men inside them seldom moved except to kiss their cigars and watch the parade in their mode of subtle judgment.

The boy kicked and squealed. Trumpets blasted past, followed by a row of cornets and tin whistles. She gripped his ankles and moved with the mass of flat-caps, bowlers, and shawls as they began their march, forming a gray river with flecks of gold where their brass instruments caught the sun.

Fran kept pace, marching with her whole neighborhood until the long banner for the Knights of Labor was stretched in front of her. She ducked out, let the boy tumble down to the grass. In the breeze behind the bare lodgepole pine where they stood, she took her time lighting a cigarette.

The child walked under the lower branch to get a good view of the bank. “Is that him, Frances?” 

“Who?” She cupped both hands over the wild flame. She tapped her ash and kept her eyes fixed on the toe of her boot. She was an ordinary height, a full width, wearing the usual black wool skirt. Her brown hair was covered under a printed cloth, tied in a knot under her chin.

“Him, look.” The child pointed. One of the suits had a fat moustache, arms folded over his chest as he surveilled the crowd.

“Don’t stare, Eddy.”

“He comes to your house sometimes.”

“Then he leaves it too, doesn’t he.”

Fran took the boy the long way home, climbing up the alley between Eighth and Seventh, sloshing through the deep muhly grass in Starr’s Ditch, scattering gravel at the level crossing on Hazel. An old spruce towered over the intersection, holding its wide skirt of needles against the wind. 

The pair crossed the tree’s shade and emerged breathless on the corner of upper east Sixth, where Fran sent Eddy Kelleher skipping home. Agnes Kelleher was out front. She waved a diaper in Fran’s direction then pinned it to the line. Another neighbor lugged a tub out her front door and sloshed it in the clumped grass. Fran marched through the gush of wash-water and went up to the Doyle’s front porch.

There was a small sack under the flowerpot, just like Peter Doyle said there’d be. Its contents clattered. She pocketed the sack and set the pot back in place.

Agnes pulled aside the knickers she was pinning and gave Fran a look, but there was no time to explain. By the time Fran was halfway down the hill toward Harrison, a snare and fife corps was eking out a new march, giving it up, starting again. Fran knew the tune. If she were a smiling type, she’d do it now. But not far from the door of her shop, two men in clean pants leaned against a wall. One of them looked like the same man Eddy had pointed out.

In the reflection of the windows of McCarthy & Moore’s shoe emporium, she pretended to admire the display. She observed her blouse and tucked it in. The old linen was fresh enough, but it was no longer bright. She scooted the hem of her wool skirt around the right way; why it always shifted around her ample middle when walking downhill she still couldn’t explain, but she didn’t care about clothes.

With her eyes narrowed, a lady’s boot came into focus. It had pearl eyelets all the way up the side with rabbit-hide trim at the top. It looked like a vulture’s neck. The calf was as narrow as a needle’s eye.

She liked things how they were, the men’s used boots on her two feet and all. There was nowhere else Frances Byrne had been. There was nowhere she would go. She would not pay too much for a skinny boot. Or any morass of lace scraps they called hats. Or follow big Bill Skewes to the courthouse, would not be served his papers then join the Buckleys in Jerome Arizona against her will, no.

She whapped the door open with one big hip and shut it with the other. Every smell of ink and heavy paper embraced her like a family might. Would not go down downstate to wipe weans’ faces while men cleared land for coal. Would not be hustled to Granite to chirp at the rheumy pupils in the schoolhouse. Not even be sent to register arrivals in Skewes’ hastily built boarding house in useless Minturn. She would not. There were four hours of letter-press printing between herself and her promise. The long hand on the wall-clock beat a better measure: three hours and twenty-seven minutes. 

She wound up her hair, secured it with a pen. The contents of the sack were small and noisy as they clattered across the workbench. She wanted to say something, but there was no one in the shop but herself. She checked the clock again. Three hours and twenty-six minutes, and old Bill Skewes could feck right off.  


In his pocket, Peter Doyle kept a paper axe. His boy had cut it out at school for a lesson on George Washington’s birthday, and Peter had taken it to work folded up in his pocket since February. It was not there now. Above ground, he was not a superstitious man. Underground, mountains swallowed reason whole. He put his tools down and got low, hat off, flame to the floor. He ran his hand over the stony ground, feeling for paper. A flake of rock tumbled off the ceiling. He pulled his wick-lamp off its bracket in his hat and held it up.

He was 650 feet below his own neighborhood. Somewhere below McHugh’s Bait & Tackle, he figured. He found his chin under his dusty beard and scratched it. Unbelievable, to think the Ibex men wanted to go to 1,200 feet, to bottom out at twelve degrees on a decline to 1,320 feet total, just one hill south. Not without his paper axe they weren’t. He reattached his lamp to his hat.

Quivered by candlelight, the tunnel’s walls had pocks and dimples and deep-set frowns. The rock faces were inhuman but they were not so dead, either. He fought to tune them out so he might focus where his circle of light was brightest.

His boy had colored his axe red and green, ought to stand out down here. A bit of paper ought to crisp under his fingertips as they brushed across the rock floor. Everyone, whole town, ought to know how it is underground. How a man shouldn’t have to wake in the dark, work in the dark, go home in the dark. That would be the first paragraph, he’d tell Frances Byrne. Doesn’t have to be an entire vertical. Not at first. Just tell the town how they’ve been chipped away at for years even while the price of silver still had a pulse and was sure to rebound with a bimetallic solution. They deserved 4.50$ per day. Not this shyster wage in an operation run by the sons of beef tycoons and donors to the gold ticket, the fuck. The ore miners on Carbonate Hill would not accept it much longer. Might be a good headline in that.

He’d ask Frances Byrne what she thought about it, tell her: she’s the expert, on words both good and bad. Mostly bad. She’d laugh, then he’d add that it would bring in some money, too. Do it up with ads from McCarthy & Moore’s, from DA Sullivan’s. Just a small thing. A newsletter. Once monthly to start. 

Fran Byrne could say no again if she liked. He could ask again, too. But there was no more strength in his arms or his heart without that paper axe, which, he saw now, was caught in the cuff of his pants. There now. He’d have the newsletter and Byrne’s cooperation alright.

The paper axe crinkled lightly in his pocket as he gripped his pickaxe. He hummed while he worked, to keep the darkness on the outside of himself. When his tune was in its sixth verse, he pushed one node of the curved axe-head back toward the face of the ore. The opposite node grabbed a hard knot of raw mountain and cracked it out. He rocked the axe against a second knot until the black clump met the toe of his boot. He picked it up, tipped the flame on his hat downward. It had never been seen until just now. He liked being the first man.

He hung the axe-head down almost to his ankle. Fran would come around. He’d have his way. He’d have the newsletter, and next summer he’d paint his blue house red. Get the scrolled trim Ellen wants for the awning over the door. Build a second room off the back. Join the committee to get a library going for the east side and take his boy to that water in Glenwood. Or Ouray. Be Coloradoans from here on out to the grans and after and he’d start at the Byrne’s tonight. He swooped the axe backwards in a circular motion and sent its head hard into the next strike.


Fran spun a pen through her fingers. It twirled one way, then the other, then it was behind her ear while she studied the shiny ratchet and screw Doyle had left under the pot. She had not told John Yost of her plan to repair the shoddy work his so-called mechanic had done to the Chandler & Price. It was her favorite of all the presses, and it occurred to her now it might be easier than she’d thought, given what she started yesterday.

The next step was to synch the flywheel revolutions with the speed of the ink rollers. The ratchet pawl skipped about two beats on the ill-fitting connector the donkey mechanic had put in. She wiggled the cold metal and shook her head. He’d used an ordinary bolt- wrong size with soft threads, then gone too far on the other end. She reached down and cranked more cold metal. The scamp would turn any wingnut all the way to Sunday given the chance. 

She undid it all and reassembled it, following the work of each interrelated piece to the next so the tension was fit for each function the whole way through. The right amount of loosening. Oiling. Cleaning. She got under the press and raised the cog on the flywheel. The rods and springs she had retooled yesterday gleamed after the swipe of her rag. She reset the pawl and stood up.

As one would with a living thing, an infant or a prized horse, she pet it. She ran one hand over the iron surface of the flywheel, the other hand across the tympan— prepared to hold a blank sheet for the day’s first impression. She pushed the wheel away from her and pumped the foot treadle. The machine, nearly the size of herself standing, gave no resistance to the adjustments.

Pinching her thumb and pointer finger to drop in a blank sheet, she pulled the paper out once it received the image. Very good. She started with the simpler, monochrome surgeon’s certificates. Then she cleaned the plate and poured out a magenta ink. At arms’ length, the first hotel menu she produced looked good. An inch from her eyes, it still looked good.

There was a clock on the wall and a mirror etched with an advertisement for a pen. There was a roll-top desk, two long workbenches, and in the front, a glass table with samples of invitations to conferences, metallurgy expositions, real estate galas, weddings.

The entire job-printing shop could fit inside the foyer of the Herald Democrat’s building. But excellence requires no magnitude, she knew, and there is something rare and wonderful about being alone for a few hours. 

In between the brand-name of the pen and its promise of precision, her nostrils dotted the center of the mirror. She got closer. The mirror was a tall oval, and her head was not. Round, brown-haired, her cheeks were rosy from working. She tried a smile, as she had seen people do. No good. She tightened her shopman’s apron and turned back to her work.

She pedaled faster, observing the ink rollers at the top while catching a peripheral glance at the bottom of her machine. The spokes in the flywheel disappeared into their rotation with graceful speed, while the heavy clamshell-style plates slammed shut, opened back up.

She pulled out a mackled impression, tossed it in the bin, dropped another blank into the frame. On inspection: cleaner this time.

She looked up. It was quiet outside and it had not been before. Light flickered at the shop window as two men sprinted down the sidewalk. The telegrapher from the station ran after them, clutching a long roll of paper flapping behind him like a tail. She listened for alarms from the mines but there was nothing. Even the noise of the parade- snuffed out.

The next slam of the plates caught her fingers. When the plates opened, one side pulled skin from the bones smashed against the other. A circle of blood spread over her sleeve.

She stopped her anguished breathing. There was no fire bell, no hospital bell, no music, and in the town’s sudden silence the floor seemed to rise and sink like waves in a storm. She coughed on something coming up her throat and reached for a rag with her good hand. 

Pale nuggets of bone were visible, pink as raw poultry, blood ponds blossoming. It hurt most on the inhale. It alternated between bad and so bad she wanted to shoot herself right there. Her options were few: hustle to the post-office to ring Doctor Blose, rack up a debt; run uphill and have a neighbor do something, at best a tobacco wrap; go scream for a carriage to Saint Vincent’s, then owe the sisters.

The pain flooded into unaffected places: thighs, ears, thoughts. The irrational paths irritated her on top of the pain, goddam shyster fecking printing-press machine parts shit. She wrapped her rogue finger up tight and kicked open the door.

A pair of skinny women gave her a look, even after the deputy’s whistle stopped them all at the curb. A black cab Fran had never seen was ushered through the signal, its horses curried to glistening. The curtains at the passenger side were shut tight. A mounted officer followed behind, his duster cocked to the side, revolver in full view. The old goat tied to the corner store lifted its tail and released a cascade of black pellets as the entourage passed.

Fran breathed through her teeth. Another red drop colored the dirt. She stepped into the street before the deputy could signal again.

The post-office was wedged. She had seen the postmaster Ed Lehane make calls once before, but now it was his wife Hattie holding the black cone, reading from a narrow strip of paper. “No whole dollars!” Hattie glanced at Fran then back at the notes, “it says, sixty-two and one-quarter cents!”

Fran held up her red, wrapped hand. Hattie swung a rolled-up newspaper at the next cussing man in line, cranked her phone, and asked for 131.

Outside, Fran leaned up against the wall and slunk down to the planks. She would ask the next butcher she saw to cleave the whole arm off. She tried to get her head above the pain with a new focus: how that phone worked— how Hattie Lehane’s voice could get in that wire— then travel up the side of the building into one of those tall posts. Up and down Harrison, the posts each had ten horizontal crossbars at the top. All things had explanations. Explanations were good. And each of these tall posts, as she looked up and strained to see, had a row of eight green-glass insulators. However they worked began with a sound, she thought, until she heard nothing at all.

Eyes open, a man in black crouched by his portmanteau. It lay open across the boardwalk like a flayed fish. The man bent over Fran’s hand. She felt good, as if levitating, on a fine vapor, flying. His tools were silver. Silver was good. A little brown bottle lay empty by his tools. Bottles were good. On the inhale, Fran felt no sensation whatsoever in either arm. She watched him wrap bloodied tools in a cloth and lay them in a bag. “I can’t pay you now.” Thoughts belonging to the light of day competed with the strange, dark gravity of the medicine. “But I will.” 

 “In time.” The doctor spoke as if he were being kind, as if time gave instead of taking away, as if money were a matter of faith. 

“I have to go back,” Fran said, “and what’s going on?” Fran looked up at the crowds, their usual daily movements through the street broken by some unplanned urgency.

“You can stop talking now,” the doctor said.

“I will not stop-”

Hattie Lehane and the doctor arranged Fran’s arms around their necks like a yoke.

“I’m fine,” Fran pulled, but they had her tight. They hauled her to an entirely black carriage with high, well-oiled wheels.

“Calm yourself, Frances,” Hattie said. A herd of spectators stood by, nosing for a closer view.

“What!” Fran hollered, “go away! Eejits.” 


“They’ve nowhere to be? Not a word of this on sixth. I have until tomorrow I think, Monday at the most-”

“I’ll call on Jenny, soon as I can.” Hattie gestured to Blose. He slapped the leather reins to the dashboard.

“Hattie!” Fran yelled over her shoulder, but Hattie was gone.


Paydays, Jenny Byrne locked herself in her office, which was once a closet, and did her books. She thumbed through a stack of dollar bills. 

Using the edge of a wire hanger to guide her pen, she made another row on the ledger spread out on her lap. Average of five dollars per evening, if all six rooms were booked, after payouts and the vice tax and supplies- high quality. By this time next year, this floor would be a legitimate hostel, with this and the lower level, it would grow into a hotel, maybe with a breakfast service. In a few months after that, likely she could march up the road and tell Frances and Aunt Mary: she’d done it. There’d be money enough to pay off 701 and keep going right here in Leadville in perpetuity. She’d be a hotelier then, her picture in the paper with an Etruscan vase in the background, maybe a sleeping dog at her feet. That’s a lady entrepreneur, there. And then christ wouldn’t the neighbors stop with their questions: where’s she been, what’s she done. Is she contagious. Had she orphaned any babies. Had she lost a fortune to drugs yet and did she think there would still be a place in heaven for herself with Mary Magdalene or were there no feet left to clean with her big temptress head of hair, the holy show of it all.

She rubbed rose-water on her wrist and took a deep sniff. Moments like this, her sister Fran would want to smoke. Jenny, however, had the distinct desire to find a daily mass. But not at Annunciation. No point in tiptoeing around Father Timlin again, acting the stranger. A morning mass down the hill with the damp Tyroleans, the Bohunk brewers and smelters, all snugged into the pews at Saint Joseph’s where they wouldn’t know her. She’d have to have something for the plate, though. She sighed, and drew out a column for expenses.

A tap on the closet door came soft and rapid as if afraid to knock, doubling its annoyance by being sorry for it. “Miss Jenny, it’s about Tess.”

“Della, I don’t work there anymore.”

“Then no one does.”

“What about Tess?”

“She says her man won’t look at her.”

Jenny cracked the door open. “Her man? It’s barely noon.” Della pressed her pouting face into the light, lifting her big eyes like a child. Keeping the hanger in the book as a page marker, Jenny closed it between her knees and pulled her thick, black curls up on top of her head. 

She followed Della out the back through a short pedestrian overpass that led to the building next door. There were four rooms in a row along a narrow, dark hallway. In the last one, a teenage boy with a fresh black-eye stood facing the wall, fully dressed.


“No ma’am.” He looked down at his feet.


“He’s just standing there, Miss Jenny. He said he wants to stand there for a while.” Tess flung one naked leg off the edge of the bed and pulled a blanket up to the black fuzz in her armpits.

“Hey,” Jenny said to the boy. He had a soft, milky face burnt to red patches from the mountain sun. He hadn’t been in Leadville long. His clothes were older than himself and totaled all of two pieces: coveralls the sort zinc miners wore from the low states and a canvas shirt two sizes too wide. “What’s the matter with you?” Jenny said.

“I was sent up, ma’am.”

“Sent up?”

“I just got to this camp, ma’am. They didn’t care for my pace.” 

Jenny pulled a curtain from a diamond-shaped cut in the door and looked out. “What else.”

“So I said to them they oughtta have papers for their digging and I figured they didn’t. They didn’t care for that comment and one beat me, then his company felt pity I reckon and sent me up.”

“What do you mean papers?” 


“And you’ve never done this.”

“No ma’am.”

“Where are you from?”

“Missouri. Branson County.”

Jenny spied a moment longer on the men downstairs, then dropped the curtain. She braced one heel against the bedframe then slowly beat the headboard against the wall. Gaining speed, Jenny signaled to Tess, who feigned her pleasure until Jenny rocked the bed in a series of definitive slams.

She cracked the curtain just enough to see their beards as they tipped up their low brims to scan the third-floor promenade. 

Jenny held out her hand. The boy dug through his pocket and pulled his own pay out. “Drink some water,” she said. “And quit those men. Try the Maine House, go out the other side and walk uphill east ‘til someone tells you where.”

“You didn’t have to charge him, did you miss?” Tess sat up wearing her blanket like a cape.

“He was in this room wasn’t he? And so were you? That’s your time. What difference does it make if he shoves his willy up your hollow or takes a nap. You could be doing any number of things right now but you’re not, because of him. That’s money.”

“Why didn’t you send him to the Daley House, or the Healy’s?”

“’Cause I never heard of Branson County.”

She did not go back the way she came. She passed by all the rooms to the end of the promenade. A quiet swivel on her heel, and she tucked into a supply closet where a ladder descended alongside the dumbwaiter, down to the first floor behind the bar. In the darkness, she pressed her ear to the thin wood.

“-not give jack shit about the white metal. The lion’s shipping all his dirt downmountain. He’ll get on the electric the bear’s sending up after that. I’ll see your five and raise it.”

“Moffat? I thought he was Lion. Call.”

“Bear, I think. It’s gonna get heavy. A pair.”

“Isn’t one of them called Wolf?”

“Could be Campion. Name anyone of them four a little bitch beaver it’d be the same. They’ll aim to make a point to the nation now. They’ll end Cripple Creek. Then cut them down up here. Let’s see ‘em.”

“Won’t happen,” said a more sober voice, “a town like this, near half-size of Denver. A pair, all I got.”

“ ’Nother pair. Surprised the likes of you finds this camp so game. You even put females on the scaffold, I hear.”


“Well they’ll start now. Find reasons to evict a sleeper here or there, chip away. It’s your pot Dan, wake up.”

Back in her closet-office, Jenny stood still as stone. What kind of grown man calls himself Bear. The desk had no good retort. Fran would surely have a smug explanation, followed by Mary’s inevitable unsolicited commentary. Maybe something hot in a mug after that.

She lit the wick. On a scrap torn from her notebook she wrote: end Cripple Creek. Moffat & electric? Sleepers- From somewhere behind the building came the distinct sound of retching, then vomiting, then coughing up the last of it. Spitting it off the lips.

Her sister Fran could have calculated these ledgers in one sweeping glance. Could have drawn a conclusion about the sum and made a plan. Jenny sighed and carefully filled out the next column, lining her numbers up neatly one over the next. She got to the bottom and carried her ones, then checked her work.

She turned the wick up as high as it would go. After putting money away for her share in the Pioneer Building and starting up with a loan for six hotel-quality beds, she had dipped into the red, as they say. That much was clear.

Digging w-o permits- But she’d come up again. Scaffold- Another knock at the door came confidently this time- hard, and higher up. She lowered the flame and wedged her note between her breasts.

Chapter Two: A Return to East 6th

The doctor’s taxi lurched as his mules took the incline up Sixth Street. The grand hotels and opera houses on Harrison began to shrink behind them like pastel cubes of wood, the kind of blocks a toddler might occupy herself with for an afternoon, colorful, playful, and simple. At the same time, the shapes of the mines and engine houses began to grow more distinct, like the lines she might draw while learning geometry in school: shapes with purpose, shapes becoming fuller and more alive as they drove up the hill. 

Fran shifted her place on the bench and scooted close. She ought not sit touching a wed man but the medicine had won its victory over her, and there was some feeling in her now that could have her sitting where she wanted, jump, turn to him and kiss his mouth, ask rude questions, buy things, punch something, see for miles.

To the north, an arabesque of black smoke from the Coronado trailed above the horizon. They’d been running it with the latest oil-tank technology, rigged inside a high wall of fresh cribbing. The engine house was new and solid, a proud giant built across the street from colorful two-room homes. The price of all that oil, for that one engine— its price and its weight in freight had made a number she’d seen on paper once, the longest number she’d ever seen.

“Can’t you afford horses?” 

“For now, mules. We’ll see about the news.” The doctor pulled his brake. “Miss? Or Mrs.?” 

Fran watched the Coronado’s expensive curl of smoke feather gracefully into the sky.

The doctor reached down and dropped the safety through the spoke, then took his hand off the brake. All the east-side Leadville streets were platted directly upslope. They were stoned and laid out like a respectable grid until east of Orange Street. Then they were hard dirt for two more blocks, cut straight in anticipation of their stones. Higher up, they were worn only by carts and boot prints; they spun off the grid like the frayed edge of a rope, weaving into the mess of retaining walls, tramways, and shaft-houses on Fryer and Carbonate Hills.

“It’s Sixth and?” the doctor said.

This man knew, and he knew nothing. Of course she lived on upper east Sixth. Her head: wrapped instead of hatted. Her decade-old coat hung loosely on her shoulders on this cool summer day. Her shoes: men’s size-6 leather boots, a hand-me-down from her neighbor Peter Doyle. Even so, east Leadville was no mere camp. Built of native timber and small as cabins, the mining families’ houses were painted every possible color, their trim delicately turned on the lathe.

A bride and groom across the road walked up to a blue and purple house, their families waving.

“What do you mean, news?”


“You said, ‘we’ll see about the news’.”

Molly Sturdevant’s research for this novel has been supported by the Western Federation of Miners Union Archives at The University of Colorado Boulder’s Norlin Library, The University of Colorado Denver, and The Lake County Library Archives in Leadville, CO. She grew up in Colorado in a working-class Catholic family; telling this story has been a profound opportunity to rethink the history of the mountain west. Her recent short stories, prose, and poetry have appeared in Orion Magazine, Crab Creek Review, The Dark Mountain Project, The Nashville Review, About Place Journal, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart, a Best of the Net, placed 2nd in the League of Utah Writers ‘Western’ category, and has been a finalist in Cutbanks’ ‘Montana Prize for Fiction.’ As a parent working full-time, she looks forward to Saturdays, and appreciates the labor movement for bringing us the weekend. She is still on Twitter/X [at]mksturdevant.