Work Header

What the Hanged Man Said

Work Text:

You want a story, kid? Pour me a drink first; I'm dry as a bone here.

Haha! That's a joke, get it? Dry as a bone! Because I'm a skeleton, see? Ah, never mind. Kids these days, got no appreciation for a fine bit of gallows humor.

What was that? No, that's not another one. What're you implying here? That I got executed for my crimes? I never committed any crime at all. I was just fulfilling a bet, see. The other fellow, he didn't believe I could possibly be well hung.

Haha! Well hung, get it? Because I was--

Oh. I see. You're here to hear about the Dead Man's Treasure. Quite a tale, that one. I came in near the end, but I heard the rest from a crow. Clever birds, crows. People like to dismiss the carrion eaters. Not as glamorous as your raptors, your swans. But they hear a good bit, know all the good tales. Why, you ask? 'Cause someone always dies in the making of a good story, and the crows, they're always hungry for a fresh meal. The gossip comes with the territory.

What did I give 'em for it? Well, just the flesh off my bones, is all. Paid up in advance, I am, and they owe me a dead man's span of tales for it.

How long's a dead man's span, you ask? Well, just about as long as forever. What, you don't think the corpses are all going to hop out of their graves and start dancing a conga line, do you? This isn't that sort of story, though I know a few--

Not interested? Well, then. Never mind.

The story of the Dead Man's Treasure goes back nearly as long as forever. It's always been there, some cursed bit of shiny thing, coughed up by hell itself to tempt fools with more wanting than sense. It's been sought by a thousand times a thousand treasure hunters, and there's not a one of 'em that hasn't come to a bad end from it, either in despair over their failure, or despair over their success.

What's that? Oh, yeah, success is something to despair over, all right. Worse than failure, it is. You fail at hunting the Dead Man's Treasure, you ain't done a thing but fail. Sure, you might be destitute, lost, even starving, but you never laid one finger on the devil's own coin, now, did you? Might be sins aplenty on your soul when you go to meet your maker, whoever your maker might be, but that won't be one of them, and believe you me, it's a big one to not have.

How big? Well, let's just say there's been rumors that the Dead Man's Treasure, the first time around, it took the shape of an apple?

Am I sure? What? Hell no. Heard that one from a crow, too. Can't ever be sure, not completely.

What? I said they're clever. Didn't ever once say they never lie. Crows're smart birds, not honest. Honesty's a thing for those who got shame, and if you're eating maggoty roadkill after it's been three days baking in the sun, you don't have any room left over for shame.

No, I don't know that from experience. Wouldn't tell you if I did, either.

Anyway, the point is, the Treasure's half as old as Creation – on account of a lot of the things that came before didn't give a single mouldering shit about shiny rocks, or shiny metal, or not-so-shiny bits of paper. That's a human thing, mostly. Human, and some birds, and the occasional monkey. Maybe a weasel or two, I don't know. Not very fond of weasels. Man I made that bet with, way back when, he was a weasel sure as anything, even if he did walk on two legs and wear a pair of motorcycle boots.

Yeah, yeah, I'm getting off track. Impatient, aren't you, for someone out in the middle of nowhere, talking to a hanged man. Point is, there's been a Dead Man's Treasure as long as there's been fools to look for it. This latest one, it ain't the first, it ain't the last. It's rarer than some, in that it got found, but it ain't alone in that, either.

Story goes, there was some coach robbers, way back when coaches were a thing people still used. They got lucky one day, robbed some high and mighty governor type, travelling through the desert. Well, I say lucky. Wasn't so lucky for the governor and his guards, or for half the robbers, either. Ended with a good ten men dead – and good's no moral judgment on either side. That was blood money before it got to the robbers' hands, and only turned bloodier after. Got worse when the three remaining fell to infighting. Couldn't agree on how to split it, see, or where and when to spend it. They drew on each other, and by the time the smoke cleared, well, two of 'em were dead, and the last one was badly wounded. Crawled out into the desert bleeding like crazy, and it wasn't long until exposure started to send him mad.

Or maybe it was the ghosts of his pissed off buddies haunting him after he left 'em all dead and tried to take the spoils for himself. Can't say for sure – crows're interested in the dead, but they don't give much of a shit for ghosts.

I don't like what you're implying here. I'm a hanged man. Altogether too corporeal to be a ghost, and I'll thank you to remember it.

Anyway, he took it into his head that the cash was cursed – which it was – and that the way to rid himself of the curse was to bury it deep in the desert – which it wasn't. He did manage to dig a hole deep enough, and fell right in along with the money. Well, the desert took care of the rest, and by the time the month was out, you'd never know a crazy man with enough cash to buy a damn town had ever been through at all.

But the story, it remained. Don't ask me how. Maybe one of the dead robbers wasn't so dead after all. Maybe one of the guards made it back to civilization. Maybe something out of the dark put one of those poor bastards on like a cheap suit and made good and sure that story didn't get buried along with the crazy man and his money.

'Course, it wasn't so much cash by today's standards, but as the story spread, that amount grew. Kept pace with the times, so to speak. Now, to hear it, there's billions of dollars buried, just waiting for some lucky fool to trip over it.

And there's been plenty a fool, believe you me. Most people hear that tale, and they dismiss it. Local nonsense, right? Some old widow lost her pin money, and years later, it's gone all out of proportion. They're the lucky ones. Dead wrong, mind, but lucky.

Others, though, that story gets inside their heads. They hear it, and they can't let go. They tell others, and it spreads like a virus. So you get fools spending their lives searching for this lost treasure, pissing away their money, their time, sometimes their families and friends. They don't know what they're going to do with it if they ever find it, they just know they want it. It'll settle them for life, they think.

Well, they're sure right about that part. Just not the way they think. Remember, the Dead Man's Treasure's blood money, and it's a bit like a vampire, in its own way. Always hungry for more blood.

Has anyone ever found it? Well now, funny you ask. There was a fellow through here just a little while ago. How long? Can't be so sure about that. Time's a funny thing, when you're as dead as I am. Living folk, you count days, hours, minutes. Dead folks, we count things by how long it takes our flesh to wither, our bones to turn to dust. Wasn't that long, though, I don't think. The crows who spotted him are still around, see, and crow years, they aren't long ones.

Anyway, he was in a bad state, all banged up and burned from some sort of fire – giant metal bird fell out of the sky, the crows say. Figure they mean a plane, but it's hard to tell. Maybe you living people have space travel now, further than just the moon.

No? Well, that's a pity. Then again, that way you can't go hunting any Dead Man's Treasure on a distant world, and get turned into a sippy cup for an alien god.

No, I'm not joking. You're talking to a hanged man, would alien gods really be the strangest thing you've ever seen?

Anyway, he came through here, banged up and burned and sun mad. Tried to drink the sand out from beneath me, before he realized it wasn't anything more than dust. Think I might've scared him, trying to talk to him. Not many living folks can hear me, but the ones who can, they aren't all quite so glad about it as you are.

Anyway, he stumbled on north. Lost he was, stuck in a prison of his own making. Had a case with him, see, and the bills dripping out, they were old ones. Blood money, skull and crossbones money. I could feel 'em, drifting past. Gave me a chill, like someone was walking over my grave.

Do I think he made it out of the desert? Can't see how he could. See, he'd be carrying the desert with him, wherever he went. Always hungry, always wanting. That's what the Dead Man's Treasure does. That's what it is, at the core of it. There's only one way to get free of it.

What's that? Well, I figured you'd know. The only way to win free of the curse is to let the Treasure go. Burying it won't cut it. You're planning to come back later, then, see? Maybe not at the front of your mind, where you're thinking hard, but at the back of it, where all those impulses live, that's the plan. No, you have to let it go entirely. Stop with wanting it, even a scrap of it.

You see why it's such a sticky trap? Even those who know about it, they get it in their heads that maybe they're the one who can trick the curse. Get the treasure, get free, and still have it to make their lives all comfortable.

So yeah, I think he's still in the desert. Even if he found some oasis, even if he walked clean through to the ocean, he's still in the desert. Always will be. You'll be able to find him there, sure as anything in this world.

Maybe he'll still have the Treasure with him.

You'll see, if you look long enough. I'll be waiting here, to hear from the crows how you made out.