The Giants
By: Carmen Baca

When cousins Daniel and Runt took off on that summer morning to explore, they didn't expect to discover something worthy of the Smithsonian. At fourteen, Daniel took being a mentor to Runt seriously. He figured he was wiser from the extra two years of experience over her. Runt usually felt the same. So, when he suggested they go to a place they'd been wanting to see for a few months, she agreed. They started from the edge of town where a high hill led to the mountains beyond. The two looked around for sturdy sticks to use as supports on the hike ahead.

"Ready?" Daniel asked once they'd chosen the right size and feel for each.

"Lead the way." Runt waved him forward before adjusting her rucksack.

Single file, they followed a cow path a little more than a foot wide between pines, oak, and piƱon. It led to the top approximately a half-mile up where it opened onto a vast meadow. The two crossed it. The cracking of twigs, footsteps on pebbles, the occasional snap of a protruding branch accompanied their heavy breathing as they went down the opposite side from the grassy field. They stopped to drink cold water from the canteen Daniel carried before moving ahead. They were crossing a small clearing when a sound caught Runt's attention. She halted.

"What?" Daniel asked, stopping after a few steps.

"Shh, somethi—"

A loud whoosh above made them look up. They'd seen plenty of big birds, hawks, eagles, even vultures. This wasn't any of those. The wingspan made Runt think of the pterodactyl she'd seen in a book once, especially when it lowered its huge head and cocked it to the side to look at them. The bird hovered over them, and then its eyes flashed. A lightning bolt struck the ground a few feet away. With a flap of its wings, the bird flew off; a deafening clap of thunder shook the ground. The raptor was big enough to carry her and Daniel both, one in each talon. They took cover under a pine and then gaped at each other when they realized where they were.

"Find a ledge to crawl under or something," Daniel yelled and took off. "C'mon."

"What was that?" Runt raced to catch up.

"I don't know."

"Did you see the lightning from its eyes?"

"I was there, wasn't I?"

"Did it cause that thunder?"

"How am I supposed to know."

"Keep going?"

"We're close."

"What if that bird comes back? Did you see the size of that thing?"

"We can hide."

"Did you see the size?" she repeated.

"I was there, wasn't I?" He repeated. He'd stopped and turned. She missed running into him by a hair. He said, "So let's go home then."

Runt debated her choices. Danny'll think I'm a chicken if I back down now. Besides, it's big enough to carry a cow. If it's hungry or if it has babies, surely it's gonna go after a cow, a horse, even. Right? Right. Her internal argument over, she shrugged, acting as though a moment of fear had never crossed her mind. She shook her head, "No. Let's keep going."

They didn't speak again. The flat mesa, their destination, lay ahead. The ascent was more difficult and took longer than expected. The side of the mountain held fresh obstacles—huge rocks to clamber over, thick bushes with sharp thorns and brambles, felled trees, some the size of culvert pipes. As though the mountain conspired against intruders, it used its natural materials to discourage them.

"I didn't think—this—this last part would—would take over an hour," Daniel panted when they reached the top and threw themselves down on the grass in exhaustion.

"Oh, I—I am—I am not looking forward to going back." Runt threw her arm out over Daniel's chest. "Water. Gimme."

"Yeah, well. You don't wanna stay up here forever, do you?" He took the strap from around his neck and handed her the canteen. She sat up.

"Oh!"

He sat up. "What the—"

The sight, unexpected and unusual, took their breath away. As though some giant had planted rows of pines spaced evenly apart, a wall of them rose a hundred feet or more before them. The rows behind the first created darkness from their depth.

"Do we go in?" Runt whispered.

"Do we quit here?" he countered. She shook her head in reply.

They rose, gulped down water, and then walked to the line of trees, sentinels guarding something they weren't supposed to see. Runt wouldn't back down as much as she might want to, but she got that feeling her grandma called "walking over one's grave" and knew she should tell Danny. She remembered his question: did she want to stay here forever? It struck her as prophetic; her trepidation intensified when the voice in her head shouted, Go back.

She didn't though. The moment passed, and she felt Daniel open the knapsack on her back. He pulled out their flashlights and secured the clasp. They moved forward between two rows of trees. After a few yards, the dark became impenetrable. They turned their flashlights on and kept going. Runt counted ten rows before she started having trouble breathing. The forest's density closed in on her, and her chest felt as though she were squeezing into something getting progressively tighter to pass through. She kept counting, ignoring the voice in her head which now whispered, Go back. At the twentieth tree, the forest opened up with no warning. Like a light flicking on in pitch black. Their flashlights clicking off sounded loud yet contained within the silence. They shielded their eyes until they adjusted and then stared.

Three rock walls before them rose in a sheer box canyon so much taller than the pines they'd just passed through. It was a multi-storied dwelling of gigantic proportions. Holes in the walls, some more square than half-moon-shaped, were huge doorways into what had to be caves. Daniel and Runt moved closer. They found a broad staircase built into the rock, the steps about three feet long and almost as deep. It took them more than one step to climb to the first level.

They approached the nearest large entry and stepped inside under the ledge. It was deep, but they could see the back wall, another doorway carved into the rock. A fire pit in the center of the floor held soot with ash and burnt pieces of wood. Around it were dark stains that looked like blood. The black color of gore made Daniel and Runt exchange looks again. Go back, Runt heard in her head again. She shook off her apprehension. There's no one here, she told herself. We're safe.

Turning on their lights, they approached the doorway. It was a foyer with an opening at the opposite end. They followed it into another room even bigger than the first. This one had square niches built into all the walls, maybe twenty or so feet long. Dozens of them as far as they could see. They went to the nearest.

Neither spoke. Runt held her breath. She felt a scream coming, but she couldn't do that here. It felt sacred, especially in light of what she stood staring at.

Daniel finally whispered, "Look at the size of it."

"Was it human?"

"Well, yeah, look at the bones."

The skeleton had to be twelve feet long. The rib cage as big around as truck tires. The molars attached to the jaw looked about the size of walnuts. It lay prone with almost every bone intact, and as the cousins moved to the next niche and the one after that, they saw each had a similar occupant, some smaller than the first and others about the same. They tiptoed back out and stopped at the first room, turning off their flashlights and tucking them into their jean pockets.

"Who do you think they were? Did you ever hear anyone mention giant people had lived here before? Do you think anyone else has been here?" Runt's questions came one after the other as she rushed from one end of the dwelling to another.

She saw something sticking out from a pile of dirt in a corner near the back wall and went to take a closer look. A thick strap of leather protruded from the top, so she pulled on it. A set of saddlebags flew out on her third try. Opening one, she found a little leather-bound book which appeared old. She flipped through yellowed, dog-eared pages until she reached the last entry about halfway through.

"The thunderbirds guard the ruins," someone had written. "They are the caretakers of the ancient ones. No one leaves here alive…"

"Danny, look," she cried, shaking the chill from her spine. She set the book aside and rummaged through the bag to see what else might be inside.

A sound froze her in place. It was a cross between a gurgle and a pop. She turned back to see why Daniel hadn't responded. Her mind at first didn't register what her eyes saw. The bird towered at least seven feet tall, one of its wings wrapped around Daniel and holding him upright. His wide eyes reflected a constrained hysteria and his temple, the one closest to the bird's head, exhibited torn flesh. The blood from the wound trickled down the side of his face.

Runt sprang into action. She rushed toward the bird and ducked beneath the long, sharp beak. The bird attacked, missing her face by inches, and pulling a large strand of her hair out by the root. She pushed its breast with both hands as hard as she could. When it stumbled back, she caught Daniel's arm in one fist and yanked him with her into the crypt. She rushed to the niche holding one of the smaller skeletons and shoved him in, following and cramming herself beside him in the dark. They would wait until the bird left; Runt rationalized. It had to leave sometime. They had peanut butter and honey sandwiches, apples, and water. They could survive a while.

She willed her heart to stop pounding by taking deep breaths and waited until she heard the bird shuffle out. The beating of its wings signaled they were alone again. "Danny, you awake?"

No answer. Maybe he fainted, she thought. She pulled her flashlight out and shone it on his face. This close, she could see his eyes were open, but they weren't seeing anything, not anymore. She pointed the light on his wound and saw the beak had penetrated so deep into his temple there was more than blood seeping from it. Her tears pooled and brimmed over. She blinked and wiped at her eyes, feeling a sorrow unlike any emotion she'd felt in her twelve years of living. Oh, Danny, don't leave me. She knew her prayer was futile; he was gone. She was alone in a tomb with her dead best friend and a skeleton among skeletons. She didn't harbor any hope of escape, but she would fight for her life, nevertheless.

The authorities searched for over a year to no avail. The cousins had disappeared as though by magic or sorcery from the face of the earth. In 1902, a rancher exploring her property found the ruins. The article out of Los Angeles to The New York Times reported that a team of archeologists had been dispatched to the area and had found a lost race of giants. Daniel and Runt's remains and their belongings weren't among them. Unnoticed was a raptor atop the mesa over the the cliff dwellings, its keen eyes watching…

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