When the burlap sack put over my head was finally taken off, I looked up into the eyes of Joey Bentz, the bankrobber. He looked a little older than the pictures on the wanted posters in Wichita, but I suppose he was only thirty or so. He had that same stare; black eyes, not brown, not hazel, but black. He had black hair to match that came to a widow’s peak on a wide, pale forehead. His looked like the face of death. Before any sense kicked in, I was sure he was going to kill me right there. But, when it did kick in, I figured if he wanted me dead, he wouldn’t have had his guy lift me off the street, bag me, and drive me out to the house where they were holed up.
And who was I to them anyway? I was just a scribbler, an artist who worked for a magazine in town. I was no Rockwell. But, I wasn’t too far off for a kid working for a local magazine. But, I guess I gained a reputation for realism around Wichita, and I’d got a job with the magazine there almost right out of high school because I had a good eye for detail, and a good drive to do good work. It was the summer of 1928. That was the thing at that time, not like now. You had to draw and paint as if you were capturing a real moment in time, just like a camera, and you had to do it fast by hand.
“What do you want?” I squeaked. I was pretty scared, and never a tough guy.
“You the painter?” said Bentz.
“Well, I’m one of them.” I said.
“Then you’re gonna paint me.”
I said “Sure.”
Just then the big blonde guy standing behind me who’d been the one who’d put the bag on me pulled me to my feet. He took me from that room, which it turned out was Bentz’s bedroom and into the living room. An easel was set up there, with some pencils and paints. They weren’t mine. I didn’t know who they belonged to. I’d find out later that the blonde guy, Charlie, just had them. They belonged to his wife, who’d took his kids and left him one night. She’d grown sick of his life of crime, and the characters he brought around to the house.
Three other fellas were sat in the living room. There was an older guy slumped in a high-backed chair wearing wire framed glasses. He was reading a magazine, with a cover illustration that I had done. I pieced together how they found me right then. Another fella sat on the divan, still wearing his hat, and cleaning his gun. He had a nose that looked like a beak, and his mouth was held in a thin, pale lipless strip across his face. I guessed he was Nate the Vulture, and I was right about that. The third guy was just a kid, younger than me I think, sitting against the wall with his arms around himself. He looked as scared as I was. Charlie sat in another chair and beamed his blue eyes my way and smiled, sourly.
Joey Bentz emerged from the bedroom, slowly. It took me a second to realize that he was shot. He held his left arm with his right, and his paces were slow and trepidatious. Then, almost as soon as I noticed it, a single bloom of crimson appeared on his white shirt at the shoulder. There had been a shoot out on the gang’s last bank job, the papers said. The police had captured one of them while the others had escaped in the getaway car. The papers didn’t say anything about the cops tagging Bentz. But, it looked like they had.
“Is it bad today, Joey?” Asked the older guy in the wire-frames.
“It ain’t good, Lew.” said Bentz. “But, I ain’t done yet. I had a shot of whiskey, and I’ll probably need another one pretty soon. ”
“Maybe you shoulda kidnapped a doctor instead of a painter, genius.” Growled Nate The Vulture not looking up from cleaning his gun.
“Button it, wiseguy. No doctors.” said Joey in a low voice of the same timbre as The Vulture’s growl. “You. What’s your name again?”
It took me a few seconds to figure out he was talking to me. He stared in the middle distance, not looking at me.
“He’s Christopher Adams. He’s the kid who’s drawn all the pictures in this magazine.” Said Lew, helpfully.
“I’m Chris, Mr. Bentz.”
“Don’t call me ‘Mr. Bentz’. Call me Joey.” His eyes drifted over to me, and then rested in a space just passed my shoulder. “Let’s get started. We haven’t got all day.”
“Um. Fine. Where would you like to stand, or to sit, Mr… I mean, Joey.”
“Charlie, get up. I’m going to sit right there.”
Charlie got up.
Nate The Vulture kept cleaning his gun, his eyes studying the barrel. It was a Browning .32 semi-automatic, and at the moment my eye drew a parallel between the long, skinny barrel, and the hook of his big nose. It took all I could do not to bust out laughing. Then, he spoke.
“This is a cockamamie idea, Joey. I think you’ve flipped your lid.”
“Dry up, Nate.” said Joey. His tone wasn’t as ferocious as I thought it would be. “You don’t got a say in this.”
“But, I got my cut, right? I can grab my cut and get outta here right now, right?”
“The heat’s on,” said Charlie . “You guys gotta lay low.”
“Until when? Until the cops break Harry? Harry’s a cream puff. If he doesn’t croak like a frog in the hospital, he’ll sing like a goddamn canary when the cops get to him, and then what? They bust in here, while your getting your goddamn portrait painted? It’s a cockamamie idea, Joey. We gotta beat it. Even if Harry don’t talk, they’ll trace Charlie back to this place for sure.”
“I’m doin’ it. I gotta leave something behind. I gotta make a mark. Important people get their portraits painted. Respectable people. And we gotta wait for Harry, too. I’ll send Charlie or Wes into town in a few days to see how he’s doing. Then, they’ll bust him out of hospital and the cops got nothin’.”
“Screw Harry! He’s fat and slow! He deserved to get shot! By now, his hospital room has a boy in blue on the door for sure. I can’t believe that you sent Charlie into town to nab this kid, now you’re gonna send him in again to spring Harry under the noses of all those cops? We should’ve been getting the hell away from here a week ago! And we don’t have time for you to leave somethin’ behind and make a mark. You ain’t respectable. That bullet that passed through your shoulder adled your brain, Joey. We gotta take the money and get gone, pronto. You’re not just risking your own neck. You’re risking mine, too!”
“They don’t know Charlie. They ain’t lookin’ for Charlie.” Said Joey, exhausted. “We’ll get Harry in a few days. Then, we scram.”
“Where are we gonna go next, Joey?” asked the kid, who I guessed was Wes. “Once you get your paintin’ done, and Harry’s back with us?”
Joey lowered himself into the chair. Charlie walked over to the wall, and began rolling a cigarette.
“We’re gonna go north and lie low, that’s where. Maybe as far as Canada.” Said Joey. “But, first we wait. And I get my portrait painted. You got that, Nate?”
“Damn it. You’re nuts, Joey.” said Nate, returning his attention to his gun.
Then, suddenly I knew that I’d learned way too much. I knew their names, and I knew where they were headed, and I knew their plans to spring their friend. I knew that I probably wouldn’t get out of this.
“Why are you just standin’ there? Get started.” said Joey irritably to me. “And Wes – get some grub goin’ in the kitchen. Charlie, bring me the bottle. My shoulder hurts again.”
Both Wes and Charlie responded immediately.
“I can start right away but, I need to be, um, alone with my subject.” I said.
“Lew, why don’t you go see to the car again.”
“Sure, Joey.” Lew left out the front door, slamming the screen door behind him.
Nate The Vulture kept cleaning his gun, not looking up.
“I mean it, Nate; dangle.”
Nate wrapped the Browning in an oil cloth, stood, and left muttering to himself. He stomped up the stairs.
Joey sat in the chair for days. He even slept there. Charlie brought him whiskey almost constantly, and Joey took sips through out the day to numb the pain. The kid, Wes, seemed to stay in the kitchen the whole time. Lew, who was the gang’s wheelman, spent time in the garage, repairing tires, and patching bullet holes. Nate The Vulture haunted the upper floors of the house. We could hear him stomping around up there like a ghost, and he never came down. I painted all day, and slept on the divan at night. Joey wouldn’t let me out of his sight.
The job was as slow as I could make it, but the image on the canvas began to take shape quickly despite myself. I could have finished it in a day if I’d wanted to. But, I knew I had to bide my time. Because at the end, they’d kill me. I was sure of it. These were desperate men. They were robbers and killers.
I stalled for time by talking to Joey as much as I could, about anything. I learned that his father died when he was a kid, and his mother had remarried a man who beat him. He ran away from home at sixteen. I learned he’d pulled his first bank job at eighteen. I learned that he’d been taken as a kind of apprentice to John Martel, the outlaw. Martel had taught him everything there was to know about planning and executing bank jobs, and how to use a gun. When they shot Martel in Missouri, Joey went on the lam and came back to Kansas, with all of the knowledge Martel had given him about being a badman. Soon, he was a badman too, with no turning back.
And I learned that even though he’d felt betrayed by his mother, he was still devoted to her. He sent money to her regularly, and anonymously. She was the one who he wanted to give the painting to, when it was done. It was funny. As he talked about his mother, he seemed just like the sixteen year old who’d run away from home, not the scourge of the Midwest he’d become.
“Paint it for her, kid.”
By the third day, Joey was slumped in his chair, his face looking like it was carved out of white cheese. His black eyes still focussed in the middle distance as if he was seeing something horrible that only he could see. There was a foul smell coming from the wound in his shoulder. The portrait I was making still retained the spirit of that cold, ruthless, and untouchable criminal mastermind who’d foiled the cops for years. But, the man himself was fading as he sat there. He was dying. So a lot of that cold cruelty was softened a bit by human frailty. Maybe that’s what he was hoping for.
One day, I worked up the nerve to ask Joey what was on my mind. I had finished the painting by then, although I hadn’t told anyone.
“Joey, when I’m done, what are you going to do with me?”
He stirred in his chair. He was covered in a thin layer of cold sweat. His eyes were glassy and far away. “Nothin’. I’m not gonna do nothin’ to you, Chris. But, watch out for The Vulture, kid. You gotta watch out for the Vulture.”
Charlie came in then to change the bandages on Joey’s shoulder. He paused looking down at him, letting out a sigh. “Joey …”.
I could hear Wes in the kitchen, rattling around with the pots and pans. Lew came in the front door, covered in dirt and grease from the car. It was suppertime.
What happened after that happened fast. Nate The Vulture thundered down the stairs, his gun in one hand, and two sacks of money slung over his shoulder.
“I just want my CUT!” he screamed.
Charlie went for his gun, fumbling with the shoulder holster he wore. The Vulture plugged him twice in the chest before Charlie could draw it. The impact threw Charlie against the wall, and he was dead before he slid to the floor. By then, I had dove to the floor, but I could see everything. The sound of the Vulture’s Browning was terrifying. I’d never heard a gun go off inside a house before. From the front door, Lew pulled out his gun and fired a shot that nicked the Vulture’s ear and then bore into the wall. One earlobe gone, the Vulture didn’t even flinch. There were three shots from The Vulture’s gun, and Lew crumpled, tearing out the screen door as he fell through it to land hard on the porch outside in a lifeless heap.
Wes burst out of the kitchen yelling, red-faced, and in tears, clutching a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun that barked out a fiery muzzle of buckshot. Both barrels caught Nate The Vulture in the chest as he turned, knocking him to the wall on the stairs. He kept his grip on the Browning, and fired. A small black hole appeared on Wes’ cheek just under his right eye, and the wall bloomed red behind him. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. The Vulture held his balance for a beat after Wes fell, and then tumbled down the remaining steps. His hat fell off his bald head as he landed at the foot of the stairs.
He was slumped in the corner, still alive. He looked at me, gritting his teeth that were soaked in his own blood. His hand was still on the Browning and he raised it. But, just as soon as I thought he’d shoot, the gun went limp, and then clattered to the floorboards. The Vulture stared, his face turning from blazing hatred, to bewilderment, to nothing at all.
I turned to Joey. He smiled. Then, he was gone too. It was as if he had been waiting for the right moment to die.
I got to my feet and looked around the room. I was alone; just me, four dead guys, and the painting.
Running from the house half-deaf from all of the gun shots, I flagged down a farmer’s truck into town, and I told the police what had happened. They were pretty desparate for leads by then, because Harry had croaked in hospital before he could tell them anything. They came out to the house and found the money, and the Joey Bentz Gang where I’d left them. The house was filled with the metallic odour of gunfire and blood. Joey stared out, still sitting in his chair with that smile on his face that rigor mortis had turned into a terrifying grimace.
They asked me why Joey wanted his portrait done, and I told them what he’d told everyone; that he wanted to leave something behind, to leave his mark. But, it was only when I was telling the police the story that I realized that he wanted to capture his real face somehow, before the dark knowledge of robbery and murder had set him on his course. When I looked at the painting again, I knew I had failed him.
Later, I looked up to see where his mother was living. But, she’d died a few years before, and Joey didn’t know. So, I kept the painting after the police were finished with it. LIFE magazine ran it in an article about Bentz in October of 1928. Along with the part of the story of my time as a captive of the Joey Bentz gang, that image made my career even though I secretly knew it was a failure. But, I’ve always known that it was never meant for me anyway. It was supposed to be a parting gift to a mother from a boy who’d gone down a long dark road he never should have followed.
I have the painting still, although it isn’t hung up anywhere. I can’t remember the last time I looked at it. But, I can’t seem to bring myself to get rid of it. There’s a tarp over it in my basement; the face of a black-eyed dead man, staring out into the darkness like a lost soul is down there right now.