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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Bearpaw: An Old West Tale - 4. Chapter 4 Scrutiny

Suspicions...

Scrutiny

 

 

They stayed alert the rest of the way, but saw no sign of the injured man, and the new horse tied to the buckboard was as cooperative as Bean. “Getting close to town now, thank the Lord,” Lucas uttered, following up with a loud sigh of relief. “We’re almost at the river now.”

“We have to cross a river?”

“Yep, but nothing to worry for since it be shallow. Never gets deep a’tall where we cross, but it does grow wider in the spring. Good smooth gravel footing too. Easy to get across the whole year, you’ll see.”

A few minutes later Dinah stepped into calm, moonlit water without no hesitation, and he saw Lucas was right about it being shallow. He seen puddles damn near as deep, but it surely was wide.

“Comes from the north and curves to the west.”

“This stream be what Bearpaw is named for?”

Lucas snorted as he looked over amused-like. “No, this is called the East River, but it empties into what be called Bearpaw Lake farther to our left. Another river comes from the other side… the northwest… and splits in two a bit before it empties into it—so three rivers make the one river. After that, Bearpaw Lake narrows, and then keeps going southwest… and then south. You confused?” He halted Dinah to let the horses have a drink.

Jubal checked behind them to see both tied horses could reach the water fine. “Might be a bit confused, yep,” he admitted with a tired grin.

Lucas nudged Jubal’s shoulder with his own and snickered. “Ain’t surprised, the way I described it. Think of it as a huge pond what sits to the southwest of town—my farm be northeast of it—and that pond gets filled by them three rivers, so it gets wide in one spot from all the spilling. That wide spot be called Bearpaw Lake, which really be just a fat ole river.”

“Reckon I have to see it in daylight, but I think I’m understanding you. So, all the farms be between the two—three—rivers coming from each side?”

“No, but I see why you’d think such. There be farms on the other side of the northwest river, which comes more from the west than the north. There’s a good bridge what wagons can cross easy in a narrow spot, and that river be fordable too, even if there weren’t no bridge. None of the rivers are what you’d call deep, and fact is, there be lots of water all over these parts.” Clucking, he urged Dinah back into a walk. The tethered horses followed without balking, as if they’d done this a hundred times before.

“I’m figuring that out sure enough. I’m used to places where water is more often scarce than plentiful.”

“Know what you speak of. This area be special for sure… to me it is.”

“I reckon it would be for most folks. Nothing worse than not having enough water and relying on rain what doesn’t come.”

“Lived through such, looking for water on cattle drives and finding nothing but rivers of dust… and then when it does rain, it floods so you have to rescue cattle what ain’t smart enough to save themselves… or run for your own life. This place be heaven, especially to a farmer like me.”

Jubal nodded, impressed with how easily Dinah walked out of the river. “So, supply wagons and the stagecoach never have to worry for getting stuck… or for getting their bottoms wet?”

“Not that I’ve ever seen. This whole stretch is that same small, smooth stone, including the banks—lots of gravel in the East River—so it never gets muddy or messy, even in winter. Sometimes folk have to break up ice, but only along the banks.”

“That be a blessing for sure.”

“Yep.”

Going by the position of the almost-full moon, Jubal figured it was about midnight when they reached the road what led into Bearpaw. Lucas turned left and before too long he could see the town. Hard to tell much about it with most of the buildings being dark, but the street spread good and wide. “That be a church steeple down there at the end?”

“Yep, center of the community for sure, and if’n you keep going past it you’ll soon see the river on the left. Folks meet and picnic alongside it, and Bearpaw surely be busiest on the sabbath.”

Jubal’s innards squirmed at hearing this was likely one of them god-fearing places where folks had their noses in everyone's business as if it be their right. Knew what the gossip be like on them worship days. He had no use for churches, and it wasn’t only because of his bible-thumping, mean-as-a-polecat pa. Blowing out a long breath of air, he pushed away that dread he felt.

“Something wrong?” Lucas asked right after.

The question caught him by surprise. His new friend didn’t miss much a’tall. “Not a thing. Only feeling weary is all.” Wasn’t a subject he wanted to talk about, and he reckoned he wouldn’t be staying hereabouts for more than a couple of months anyways, so he turned loose that sharp poke of fear as he looked around.

A lantern hung in front of the livery to their left, and another where Lucas pointed to as the sheriff’s office. Farther down on the same side be some lantern-lit windows what belonged to the small hotel. The rest of the place was mostly shrouded in shadows because of the long rows of awnings and overhangs, but Jubal could see the mercantile sign as the wagon went past it, and then the bank next to a row of businesses. It wasn’t a big town compared to ones he’d been to, but he did like that about it. He liked the quietness of it too. Weren’t rowdy like so many be this time of night.

“No saloon?”

“Not that kind of town, at least not yet it ain’t, and the church-folk want to keep it that way. Don’t bother me none, but you can get a whiskey in the hotel. They don’t allow no trouble a’tall, though, and no gambling. Expect that’ll change one day as more new folks show up. Already hear some grumbling for it. You wanting a drink?”

“No, not for me. Don’t often partake myself.” Yep… no doubt this place be god-fearing.

“I don’t neither. I mean I have, plenty of times over the years, but never had a hankering for it regular like some do. So, this be Bearpaw, what you can see of it. There’s a sawmill on the East River behind us, ‘bout ten minutes from town at a lope. Fifteen to twenty by wagon.

“Owner copied what the one in Larkspur does—it’s what Morey told me first time I went there to find out his prices—he’ll take half any trees I bring as payment for milling the rest. Don’t need to spend any money, which I surely do appreciate, and he gets finished lumber to sell to other folks. He’ll also buy good logs from me, but I have need for all the ones I fell. Got plenty of fine cedar boards for the roof a couple weeks back, ones needing nailed on once the rafters are in place—they be long, wide ones. It’s why I needed them nails in the back.”

“I can do that for you if you want. Done it before on a steep-roofed barn one summer as a young’un. Put the rafters and ridge beam up too, with some help. Spent two days in blazing sun, but it ended up a fine job for sure. Had some blisters on my shoulders since I took my shirt off, and got paid too much for it, but I don’t need no money for doing yours. Always liked putting up buildings and such ever since I was big enough to hold a hammer.”

“Sounds you got a heap more experience than me. You be nervous?” Lucas asked.

“Suppose I am. Is it easy to tell so?”

“Yep. For one thing, your words are coming at a gallop… and you’re using a lot more than you were,” he answered with a chuckle. “Here we be.”

“Will the sheriff be here this time of night?”

“If not, his deputy likely is. Samuel’s his name, but don’t know him well a’tall. He just got hired on a month or so back.”

“Best I let you do the talking, whoever it be.”

Lucas chuckled again, just as the door opened with a loud squeal. “Luke! What brings you to town this time of night? You all right?”

“Fine, Reid, just fine.”

“Good. Had me worried, you did. Been weeks since I laid eyes on you—sure are a welcome sight—but why are you here after midnight with your wagon and such?” He talked to Lucas, but his curious gaze was busy looking Jubal over. Another fellow edged out by the man, a younger one if’n Jubal had to guess, but it be hard to see him clear with his hat pulled low and his face shadowed.

“Had a messy time of it getting up that damn South Road. Have to tell you it not be a pleasant reason for the visit. Got two dead bodies in the back I expected you’d want to lay eyes on. Brought them from about two hours to the south. They had it in their minds to steal Dinah and this here wagon.”

“You don’t say! And I suppose you wouldn’t let that happen?”

“Determined not to, but it wasn’t no certainty. Had some help with it, though. Jubal here, he hid under the canvas after we heard them up ahead a mile or more. We were fortunate their voices carried to us so we had us some warning. Thought they might be up to no good, and turns out I was right to think so.”

“Well, thank the Lord for that. Glad to see you’re still breathing.” The man was once again staring at Jubal, but he seemed friendly enough. “Just the two men?”

“No,” Lucas answered as he hopped to the ground and held his hand out to be shook, which the man did, using two hands to grasp it.

It seemed extra friendly to Jubal. That they knew each other well was obvious, which meant he be the sheriff, but it hadn’t yet been said. The other fellow, definitely a younger man, eyed him again as he made his way towards the back of the wagon. Maybe he be Samuel?

“There’s a third who’s wearing a bullet wound to the shoulder. He hightailed it out of there soon as he got shot.”

“Sounds like you two were damn lucky. Jubal, is it?” he asked with his attention now squarely on him.

“He be Jubal Coyle,” Lucas answered for him. “And he’s a damn fine shot for sure.”

Jubal took that as his clue to step down from the wagon. He held out his hand like Lucas done, and the man shook it with just one of his. “You be the sheriff or the deputy?”

“Wonder that myself sometimes,” he answered as he stared hard at him. “Name’s Reid Barnes, and suppose I have to admit to being the sheriff of this here town since there’s bodies needing taken care of. Don’t get many of those around here, and I ain’t complaining for it. Suppose I’m gonna have to wake Roland so he can box them up.”

“Sorry to cause you work, Reid, but I didn’t think we should just leave them there. Tried to save you a trip.”

Reid gave some attention to Lucas before shifting it back to Jubal. “And I’m obliged. So how did you two end up in the same buckboard?” His steady gaze finally moved off Jubal as he walked down the far side of the wagon and looked at the two horses tied to it.

“Happens I got ambushed some days afore I met Lucas. They caught me sleeping, and one gave my head a bashing soon as I woke. Didn’t wake again till they be riding away, and I only saw the face of one when he looked back.”

“You saw it clear after having your head bashed?”

Jubal heard the man’s doubt, but he had none a’tall. “Yep, my head was hurt bad for sure, but my eyes worked then—not so much later—and the face I saw be the same one what ordered Lucas to rein Dinah in on the road.”

“And you’re certain of that?”

Jubal was surprised at the question. “Wouldn’t have said it if I wasn’t. Saw his face through the crack in the wagon boards. No doubt it was the same man.”

The sheriff flipped the tarp off the dead men and took a good gander, getting his face close. The younger one took a step back as the horses crowded over to his side, skittish of the uncovered bodies.

“We think they’re brothers since they look alike.” Lucas said.

“I reckon that be so. Prescott brothers they be, if I recollect the name right, wanted for thieving and killing.”

Jubal sighed his relief at hearing such, and that got him a curious look from Sheriff Barnes.

“Pretty sure they be the ones I got posters for, but I’ll check the likeness. Did the other one look like them?”

“Wouldn’t say so,” Jubal answered. “He had a high forehead and wore his hat tipped back both times I saw him. Face was thin… different shape than these two. Thin mouth too.”

Lucas nodded his agreement at his description. “He was the only one what talked. Said he wanted my wagon, but I can’t figure what for.”

“He’s a cousin of these boys. Ronnie Prescott from your description. No kerchiefs?”

They both answered “No” at the same time.

“Then they intended to do more than take your wagon. They aimed to kill you, Luke.”

“Well, it’s what they tried to do, but why do you think it?”

“Thieves cover their faces so they don’t get recognized. Killers don’t care if they be seen.”

“But… they didn’t kill me when they took my money and my horse,” Jubal said, curious as to why he was still alive, and curious too about this sheriff who looked and acted like no lawman he’d ever seen. Might be it was that he didn’t look near as old as the sheriffs he’d come across over the years.

“How hard were you hit?”

“What? Oh, my head? Damn hard. Got a lump still. It felt the size of a fist for a couple of days after. Took me a while afore I could stand, and longer still to move around without retching. Affected my thinking for sure.”

“Must have been a hell of a blow then. And they didn’t know you woke from it?”

“Ah… no… I’d say they didn’t. Opened my eyes, but couldn’t move a’tall. The one looked back, but not at me. I was on the other side of my campfire with my face in the dirt when I saw his face. Only a glimpse but couldn’t forget it if I wanted to. He was smirking… proud of what they done to me.”

The sheriff nodded, appearing thoughtful. “Makes sense then, I reckon. They most likely thought the crack to your skull finished you off cause these two here are documented killers according to their posters. So’s the one who hightailed it. I’d say you got some good luck for sure. No doubt you appeared dead to them, and that was their intent when you got struck so hard.”

His eyes widened at the handsome man’s words. His freshly shaven face looked smooth, and it made Jubal scratch at his rough one. “Reckon I probably did… look dead. I was on my stomach with my head twisted bad when I woke. Taken blows to my head before, but none like that.”

The sheriff nodded again. “Who drew first on the road?”

“The one nearest you there. Saw his gun clear the holster when I fired. He didn’t see me, and neither did the others, otherwise they might have been faster.”

“I saw it too, and jumped from the wagon as I shot that other one. Right blessed his bullet missed me.” Lucas had moved closer to Jubal, and he found that a comfort.

“And Ronnie, the one who got away?”

“He was shooting where Lucas be, on the other side of the wagon, when I aimed for his heart. Lucky for him his horse swung and my bullet hit high—on his left shoulder, or thereabouts. Don’t know for sure how bad he was injured, but he be a left-handed gun. He didn’t drop it, though.”

Sheriff Barnes stood still, looking like he was pondering all he’d heard. “And you never caught sight of him again?”

“No, sir. Too dark to track any blood, but we found my pack horse tied to a tree a few miles up the road.”

Your pack horse? Well… that explains the pack saddle and the gear. So this other one is your riding horse?”

“No,” Lucas answered for him. “This mare belonged to that one on your side what shot first. She took off with the other horse when these men fell and the injured one ran off, but we found her later with Jubal’s mare.”

“I see. Then… where is your mount, Jubal? Thought you said they only stole your one horse?”

“I did say that.” Jubal swallowed, feeling nerves at thinking the sheriff be suspicious of what he be saying. He glanced at Lucas before he continued. “They only stole Bean, my pack horse there. Kema, he… well… happens I got lost in a bog after I got robbed, cause my thinking be addled, and he broke his foreleg trying to get it free from something deep.

“Shoulda just… shoulda backtracked out of there afore it happened. He got me free of it, but I had no choice but to shoot him. Blame that on these fellows too, cause I normally be smarter than that. Wasn’t exactly seeing right sometimes, like I told you, with my head hurting so.”

“That so? Well, I’m surprised they didn’t take him too. Don’t make sense they’d only take the one, and leave the other for a man they thought dead. Horses are worth a lot around here.”

Yep, the man was doubting his story, and it irked him. He couldn’t help bristling some. “I ain’t surprised by it a’tall, Sheriff. Bean wouldn’t have given them no trouble, but Kema was a mean one if he didn’t know you. He would have kicked out at a stranger—would have struck out with his front too—and bit if they got close enough to his teeth—had a neck like a snake—never once did such to me, though. Happens he was a mature stallion, willing, but full of fight if he didn’t like you. Always had to be careful where I tied him. Would take a chunk out of horses he didn’t like sometimes too.”

“Ah, I see. Reckon that’s a damn good reason for them to let him be. You notice anyone else in the area… anyone close by?”

“No, not that I seen. Why you asking such?”

“Seems like they were careful not to shoot their guns off, since you were hit and not shot—shooting’s easier for killers—and neither was your stud horse. Could be they were worried for being heard, but it’s just a thought. As Sheriff, I have to think these things through before I write my report.”

He could see the man was doing just that as he stared at him with those pale eyes, but he’d done nothing wrong, so he met his gaze and held it. The sheriff’s next words were said in a different tone, and Jubal felt some relief the suspicion appeared gone. He understood now Reid just be doing his job, making sense of what he’d been told, and now he be satisfied.

“Sorry you lost such a horse. Don’t mind one with some personality to him,” he said with a friendly grin.

“He’ll be a hard one to replace,” Jubal said with his gaze back on Lucas. He let loose a quiet sigh as he relaxed.

“When I first saw Jubal, he was standing on the side of the South Road with nothing but his saddle and bridle… and his saddle bags. Could tell he’d been through something bad. Was heading south, but he did me a good turn when he decided to come north with me, since I never could have faced the three of them and lived. Going to work with me at the farm for a spell.”

“Is that so?”

The sheriff turned back his way, staring at him again as he waited for his answer.

“Yep. Was on my way to buy my own land around Larkspur, but they stole my money.”

“You’re a long way from Larkspur.”

“Yep, found that out from Lucas. Was coming from the southeast and didn’t know how far it still be, but it don’t matter none now. Lucas offered me some honest work, and that was more than I had at the time, when I had no horse or money.”

“Well, now you do. You have your horse back… one of them at least.”

“Suppose that’s true, but she ain’t suited as a riding horse, though I suppose she’d do in a pinch. Gives a jarring ride she does. Snaps her knees high as fall corn.”

The sheriff laughed. “Had one of those as a young’un. Would shake my teeth loose if I didn’t get up off the saddle when she trotted. Had to walk or gallop mostly, but I liked her just the same.”

“Yep. That’s what Bean be like, but she’s a solid pack horse. Sure-footed and calm.”

“Might make a good cart horse. Them buggy folks like high-steppers.

“She could do, yep. Got no use for a cart, but always needing a pack horse.”

“So, how much money did they steal from you?”

“Forty-two double eagles from my saddle bags, what were at my side when they ambushed me. Knew they were empty soon as I got my head turned. Only thing left in them was my fire kit and some ammo.”

He whistled same as Lucas had as he walked back up to the front of Dinah. “They surely must have thought they struck it rich. Eight-hundred-and-forty dollars is no small sum—can see why Ronnie Prescott was smirking. They take anything else?”

“Took my rifle what was next to me too, and my second pistol from my saddle bags… and Bean and all my supplies what were on her. Hadn’t unsaddled her yet because I fell asleep before I meant to, right after I got my fire going. Bone-tired, I was, and nodded off sitting up.”

The sheriff glanced at his waist. “They left you a gun?”

“Don’t imagine they meant to. My holster was hanging on a tree branch where I was going to set my bedroll, so I reckon they didn’t see where it be, it being dark in that spot. Must have figured they already had all my firearms.”

“That was lucky.”

“Suppose so, but I sure didn’t feel lucky. That gold was all I had in the world… but I did get twenty of them coins back.”

“You don’t say? Off that there horse?”

“No, from the two brothers’ pockets. They each carried ten, and half of them were in a leather pouch I’d made, so I know they be my exact ones.”

“There also be four ten-dollar coins from that one’s saddlebags I think Jubal should have, but he couldn’t be convinced of such. Said he wanted to ask you first.”

The sheriff eyed him before he spoke. “Why wouldn’t you keep them for yourself? They still owe you four hundred and forty dollars.”

“Those double eagles be mine, but they could have stole them singles from someone else.”

“Could be that’s true. I’ll tell you what. I’ll keep those and if no one reports their theft in the next week, that money is yours. Sound fair?”

Jubal nodded, too surprised to speak.

“Did you find anything else?”

“Yep,” Lucas answered. Three revolvers, a gold and ruby bracelet, and a fancy shawl. It’s all still in the saddle bags of that horse.”

“There’s a good holster too,” Jubal added.

“Gold and ruby bracelet? Bring those saddle bags in, would you, Billy?” he asked the other fellow before he disappeared inside the office. A lantern flared up as Jubal waited for Lucas to tie Dinah to the hitching post.

He followed him through the door to see the lawman searching through some papers on top of a long wooden cabinet. Billy set the saddle bags on the messy desk in the center of the room before moving off to the corner.

“Here it is. A woman was murdered in her home by gunshot in the town of Hillcrest—about six days ride southeast of here—and her gold and ruby bracelet was stolen. Her Mexican shawl was also missing, and three men were seen riding away, but never identified. All of them rode sorrel horses. This came over the wire about two weeks back. I don’t think I need to ask, but were all them horses sorrel?”

“Yep,” Lucas answered. “The one out there is a mite lighter than the other two, but all were chestnut-colored.”

Reid held up the posters of the three men before passing them over. “Recognize them?”

“That’s them for sure. You’ve seen these two, and this be the one what got away.”

Jubal nodded his agreement. “I ain’t got a doubt that’s him,” he said, pointing to the third poster. The sheriff whooped same as a cowboy would, and it startled him.

“With your fellas’ help, happens I solved my first murder as the sheriff of Bearpaw Lake, and two of the killers are deceased, which should impress the town council. You’ll get their bounty, and I’ll take the credit,” he said with a huge grin. He followed up with a laugh as he winked at the young man in the corner.

“Bounty?” Jubal asked after seeing Billy smile wide at the sheriff, showing good teeth.

“Of course. Read what it says. Fifty dollars for their capture or death. That’s for each of them, so you’ll both get the same. Likely take a week or two for authorization to come through.”

“Weren’t expecting that,” he said, staring at an equally surprised Lucas.

“Not something I expected either. Reid, what about that mare out there? Shouldn’t she go to Jubal as compensation?”

The sheriff pursed his lips. “Ah… I reckon so, since he’s still owed damages well beyond its worth… and their attack did cause the loss of his good saddle horse. I know she ain’t the one you had, but she’s something you can ride. You want the saddle too?”

“No, sir. Don’t have no use for a dead man’s saddle.”

“I respect that,” he said after giving Jubal a thoughtful look. “Then I’ll give the tack to Roland for the pine boxes and his work. The guns will get auctioned by the town if there aren’t any claims for them. I reckon this has been a good night despite what you’ve been through. Circuit Judge Willet will be by in about two weeks and I’ll get my name in his book, all nice and tidy thanks to you boys.”

“Was only protecting what’s mine,” Jubal said. “We never planned on killing no one.”

Reid gave him a look of sympathy. “I surely understand how you feel, and I don’t make light of what you two had to do,” he said, speaking soft.

Lucas nodded as his gaze set itself on Jubal. He nodded too, not having anything to say.

“I’ll make sure the bracelet and shawl get returned to the family. Expect they’ll be comforted to know she did get some justice, and that’s something you’ve given them. Will send word out too, to be on the lookout for Ronnie Prescott, but I suspect he’s long gone now he’s lost his gang.”

Decency showed in the lawman, and youth showed in his enthusiasm. Jubal was willing to bet he hadn’t been a lawman for long, but that didn’t mean he weren’t a good one.

“Can we mosey on now, Reid? I’ve been away from the farm longer than I planned.”

“Oh, of course, of course. Need you to drop off them bodies behind the undertaker’s first, though. Billy will give you a hand, and I’ll go rouse Roland now so you can get on your way. Pleasure meeting you, Jubal, despite the circumstance. Look after that head wound. You’re not still addled are you?”

“No, been clear thinking for days now. Thanks for your concern, Sheriff, but I reckon I’m fine.”

“Reid. Call me Reid.”

“I’ll be sure to do that. He saw something in the man’s gaze different from his previous stares, and he thought he recognized that interest… but he’d been wrong too many times before, so he looked away quick.

“We’ll take the wagon round and then get back on the road. Send word if you need us for anything else.” Lucas was following Jubal through the door when Reid called to him.

“Billy, you go ahead. Luke, can I speak with you?”

Lucas turned in the doorway, seeming reluctant to Jubal.

“Won’t take long… just a word.”

“Surely.” He stepped back inside past Billy, who was coming out with a wide board what had handles on it. He trotted off across the street while Jubal climbed up into the wagon, relieved this thing be done. He looked back at his new horse and decided he was pleased to have her. Couldn’t rope a wilding without a good mount. Feeling good at how things had gone, he peered through the streaked office window and saw the two men standing close, closer than he would have expected, and he heard some low murmuring. He was weary as a hound after a two-day chase, but his curiosity stirred. Were they talking about him?

He didn’t have long to ponder before Lucas came out and climbed up beside him. “What was that about?”

“Nothing important. Ah… he wanted to go fishing upriver, something we’ve done before one time, but I told him I was too busy to be away from the farm again. Disappointed, but he’ll get over it.”

Fishing? Jubal thought about what he’d just seen through the glass, and as much as he had come to trust Lucas in such a short time, he didn’t believe he was speaking the whole truth. As long as it wasn’t about him, though, then it weren’t his business. Still, it caused him to wonder.

 

 

I hope you enjoyed this double-length chapter. I would appreciate it if you shared your thoughts by leaving a comment in the comment section... and please leave a story like and recommendation if you feel the story worthy. I could use the motivation. Cheers!
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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