Belle Starr

By Richard D. Arnott
6/12/2006 • OK Corral, Outlaws, Wild West

Myra Maybelle Shirley, the legendary Belle Starr, was not involved in any gunfights, but she did seem fond of carrying a six-shooter, as seen in Bob Crofut's 1997 painting Bandit Queen. (Bob Crofut, Ridgefield, Conn.)
Myra Maybelle Shirley, the legendary Belle Starr, was not involved in any gunfights, but she did seem fond of carrying a six-shooter, as seen in Bob Crofut's 1997 painting Bandit Queen. (Bob Crofut, Ridgefield, Conn.)

The life of Myra Maybelle Shirley, better known as Belle Starr, has been romanticized by many writers and, of course, by Hollywood. The appeal of a ‘lovely lady’ leading thieves and rustlers has been powerful through the years, often too powerful to allow facts to spoil the stories. Many tales were published by the National Police Gazette in the 19th century, and other publications picked up on the intriguing copy. Fraudulent biographies, spiced by bogus letters and entries from Belle’s diaries, sold for 25 cents. The fascinating, often fantastic, stories led to the myth and legend of Belle Starr.

Belle Starr, according to the legend, was the ‘Bandit Queen’–a lovely lady who ruled outlaw gangs with her guns, her will and her personal favors. This amoral, amorous adventuress associated with the James boys and the Youngers. She was alleged to have borne Cole Younger’s illegitimate child. Her marriage to bandit Jim Reed was said to have been performed on horseback, not by a man of the cloth, but by another member of the gang. She has been credited with stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, cleaning out crooked poker games with her six-shooters, and galloping down city streets with pistols blazing.

After her first husband was shot down, Belle married Sam Starr and, legend has it, became the mistress of the notorious outlaw Bluford ‘Blue’ Duck. Her home was called the headquarters for the several bands of rustlers and brigands that she captained over the years. In the end, though, shotgun blasts left the ‘Petticoat Terror of the Plains’ dying in the road just a few days before her 41st birthday. Speculation on who shot her from ambush has produced several suspects, but the fact her killer was never brought to justice only adds to her legend.

Belle’s true life was one without glamour. The so-called Bandit Queen was actually an unfortunate woman hardened by her times and associates. She has been described as ‘bony and flat chested with a mean mouth; hatchet faced; gotch-toothed tart.’ In her later years, she really was a companion to known thieves and felons, but it is doubtful she ever did more than steal horses and provide a haven for fugitives.

Her father, John Shirley, was the black sheep of a well-to-do Virginia family. He moved west to Indiana, where he was married and divorced twice. His third wife was Eliza Pennington, on the Hatfield side of the feuding Hatfield and McCoy families. The Shirley family moved to southwest Missouri in 1839. John Shirley prospered raising wheat, corn, hogs and blooded horses.

Bell was probably born near Carthage, in Missouri’s Jasper County. Shirley family records, supported by the 1850 federal census data, indicate that three children were born while the family resided in Jasper County–John Allison ‘Bud’ in 1842; Myra Maybelle (or Maebelle) on February 5, 1848; and Edwin in 1850.

The next decade brought financial success and two more sons to the Shirleys. They sold their land in 1856 and moved to Carthage, the growing and developing county seat. The capital from the sale of their land was used to purchase city lots and to build a wayside inn, a tavern, a livery stable and a blacksmith shop. The businesses occupied almost an entire city block. The 1860 census estimated the worth of John Shirley’s holdings at $10,000, a significant sum in those days. He was a respected member of the community; his library was an attraction to the intelligentsia, as were Eliza’s piano and her gracious Southern manners.

Myra Belle attended the Carthage Female Academy, where she was instructed in ‘the three Rs,’ along with music and classical languages. She was a bright student. Although educated as a lady, she flaunted her status as a little rich girl. Growing up in a hotel, she always had an audience. She also loved the outdoors. She spent countless hours roaming the countryside with her older brother Bud, who taught her to be a competent rider and to handle guns. But good times in Carthage became troubled times with the advent of the Civil War.

Jasper County saw both armies pass through time and again. Residents were forced to take sides. Neighbors became bitter enemies. Irregular bands of jayhawkers and ‘Red Legs’ laid waste to Missouri communities in support of the Union. Guerrillas and bushwhackers, led by ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson and William Clarke Quantrill, retaliated with death and destruction in Kansas. Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger rode with these Rebel raiders.

John Shirley, like many of his neighbors from the South, admired Quantrill and was ecstatic when son Bud joined the bushwhackers. Bud, who knew the area and the people well, served admirably as a scout. He attained the rank of captain and the distinction of being much sought after by Federal troops. Young, vivacious Myra Belle most likely gleaned information from her many social contacts and passed it on to her brother.

Bud’s fate was sealed in June 1864 when the house in Sarcoxie, Mo., where he and a companion were being fed was surrounded by Federal militia. The two men bolted. Bud was killed climbing a fence, while his compatriot escaped and hastened to Carthage to inform the Shirleys of Bud’s demise. Some of Belle’s biographers have her strapping on six-guns and seeking vengeance at this point, but there is no record of such actions, and it is doubtful that a well-educated 16-year-old girl would go that route.

John Shirley’s business was ruined by the war. The death of his son was the final straw. He sold his property in Missouri, loaded his family and household goods into wagons and set out for Texas. Little is known of the Shirleys’ journey there. It is known that Texas, at that time, was a refuge for the dregs of society. The Shirley family settled near Scyene, a small settlement southeast of Dallas, on a land grant of 800 acres. The family lived in a dugout at first but soon constructed a four-room clapboard house that was, at that time and in that locale, like a mansion.

Belle waves her hat to an appreciative male audience in this highly romanticized depiction of the 'Bandit Queen.' (Library of Congress/Corbis)
Belle waves her hat to an appreciative male audience in this highly romanticized depiction of the 'Bandit Queen.' (Library of Congress/Corbis)
Most of the immigrants in Texas raised cotton, but John Shirley raised corn, sorghum, oxen, horses, milk cows and hogs. Cash was earned by trading horses and providing a blooded stud service for a fee. Myra attended a one-room school. She was older than most of the students and far ahead of them academically. Her sharp tongue made her less than popular.

These were difficult times for Southern sympathizers. The Southerners who had previously governed were disqualified from holding office, and Carpetbaggers were in control. Amnesty was granted to Federal guerrillas, but not to those of the Confederacy. The news of the day dealt largely with bank robberies and train holdups accredited to the James brothers, the Youngers and others who had ridden with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson. One of these outlaw bands, seeking refuge, stayed at the Shirley house one night. Belle later stated that it was there that she became reacquainted with the first man she ever loved. His name was Jim Reed, and she had first met him back in Missouri, where the Reed and Shirley families had been friends. The romance blossomed in Texas, and Belle and Jim married in 1866.

The presence of Cole Younger at the Shirley residence has led to the fiction that he seduced Belle and she bore his illegitimate daughter. Younger admitted that he did visit the Shirleys in Texas, but in 1864, not 1866. He stated that the next time he saw Belle was at the Reed residence in Missouri in 1868. She was 6 months pregnant with her first child. Some authors insist this denial was the response of a ‘Southern gentleman,’ but a manuscript compiled by Richard Reed, younger brother of Belle’s husband, supports Younger’s story.

Many writers have portrayed Belle Shirley’s marriage to Jim Reed in a ludicrous fashion. They claim that Belle’s parents objected to the union and that the young couple eloped with a band of desperados in July 1867. One of the gang supposedly read the marriage ceremony while the couple took their vows on horseback. Actually, the Shirleys had no objection to Reed, who was not yet a wanted man. A copy of the marriage license issued to Myra Maybelle Shirley and James C. Reed in Collins County, Texas, shows that they were married on November 1, 1866, by the Reverend S.M. Williams. Jim moved into the Shirley household near Scyene and shared the farm chores. Later, he became a salesman for a Dallas saddle and bridle maker. By late 1867, though, he and Belle were living on the Reed homestead in Missouri. Early in September 1868, Belle gave birth to her first child, Rosie Lee. Belle adored the baby and referred to her as her ‘Pearl.’ The nickname stuck.

Soon after Pearl’s birth, Belle’s brother Ed Shirley was shot and killed for stealing horses. It is likely that the young mother returned to Texas for the funeral and to show off the new granddaughter. The next several months were spent with her mother-in-law back in Missouri. Since there is little documentation of Belle’s life during this period, some of her biographers have her prancing through the dance halls and saloons of Dallas. This has been refuted by a neighbor of the Reeds who recalled Belle and the baby living at the Reed household and attending church.

Jim Reed spent little time at home. Farming was not his chosen profession. He raced horses and fell in with Tom Starr, a murderous Cherokee so notorious that he was an embarrassment to the Cherokee Nation. Tom Starr’s father, James, had been heavily involved in tribal politics. The Cherokee were split into two hostile factions in 1845 when James Starr was assassinated. Son Tom swore vengeance and carried out his oath with 20-plus murders. He was later pardoned because of a unique quirk in a federal peace treaty.

After the Civil War, Tom Starr and his sons built a thriving business selling whiskey and rustling. Jim Reed participated in their nefarious activities and then killed a man to avenge the death of his older brother Scott Reed, who had been gunned down. A writ was issued against Reed for murder and for bringing whiskey into Indian Territory–he was now a full-fledged fugitive. This, coupled with threats from friends of the man he had slain, caused him to seek a healthier climate. He, Belle and Pearl headed for California early in 1869.

Belle gave birth to their second child, James Edwin, on February 22, 1871, while the Reeds were still on the Pacific coast (see story on Ed Reed, P. 20). In late March, Jim was accused of passing counterfeit money. The subsequent investigation disclosed that he was wanted for murder, and the authorities set out after him. He fled for Texas on horseback, sending his family back via stagecoach. Various biographers have the Reeds returning to Texas in 1872 or 1874, but it was March 1871 according to Cole Younger, who assisted in getting the young Reeds set up on a farm outside Scyene.

Soon rumors spread through the neighborhood that livestock were missing, and Jim Reed had drawn a number of unsavory characters to him. Later, in 1873, he and his band of cutthroats were involved in two cold-blooded murders. Rewards were offered for their apprehension. Jim escaped to Indian Territory, taking Belle with him but leaving the two children with her parents in Scyene.

On November 19, 1873, in the Choctaw Nation, Reed and two others robbed the Watt Grayson family of $30,000. Grayson and his wife were hanged from a tree until he agreed to disclose the hiding place of his money. Some of Belle’s biographers say she participated in the robbery, dressed as a man. No member of the Grayson family, nor any of the hired hands who had witnessed the robbery, mentioned a woman dressed as a man, or even a slightly built man.

The Reeds returned to Texas, and Belle left her husband, moving in with her parents. She objected not only to his life of crime but also to the fact he had taken up with another woman–Rosa McCommas. Belle and Jim had been together a little more than seven years.

Jim Reed and his band continued their depredations, robbing stages and stealing livestock. Several times posses nearly caught them, but they always managed to elude them, escaping to Indian Territory. Reed returned to Texas alone in August 1874. One of his former acquaintances, John T. Morris, had been deputized especially to capture Reed for the price on his head. Reed, unaware of this, wound up traveling with Morris. The two stopped at a house for a meal, and while they were eating, Morris ordered Reed to throw up his hands. Instead, Reed flipped the table over and bolted for the door. He was shot and killed. Several biographers wrote that Belle denied that the dead man was her husband in order to keep Morris from receiving the reward money. Newspaper accounts of the death, however, indicate that the corpse was identified by those who knew Reed.

Reed’s death left Belle destitute. She had not profited from his ill-gotten gains. The next few years of her life are somewhat of a mystery. It is known that her father died in 1876 and that her mother sold the farm and moved to Dallas. Belle also sold her farm and apparently spent a lot of time at the Reed home in Missouri.

Some authors have tried to fill in the gaps in Belle’s story by suggesting she was involved in such activities as burning down a store; robbing a bank; being jailed for horse stealing, and then eloping with her jailer; robbing a poker game at gunpoint; and running a livery stable, then fencing stolen livestock. Such activities are not, however, reflected in court records or newspaper accounts. Local gossip had it that Belle lived with Bruce Younger for a short time in Kansas. Bruce was an uncle of outlaw Cole Younger, according to Younger expert Marley Brant. In his book Starr Tracks: Belle and Pearl Starr, author Phillip Steele says that Belle and Bruce were married in Chetopa, Kan., on May 15, 1880.

If Belle did marry Bruce Younger in 1880, he wasn’t the only man she married that year. Records show that three weeks later, on June 5, Belle married Sam Starr, the handsome, three-quarter Cherokee son of Tom Starr. Sam’s age was listed as 23 and Belle’s age as 27, though she was probably 32 at the time. The newlyweds cleared land and settled into a comfortable cabin at Younger’s Bend, on the Canadian River about 70 miles southwest of Fort Smith, Ark. The name ‘Younger’s Bend’ was, according to one account, given to this place by Tom Starr because he had been so impressed by the daring-do of the Younger Gang. In any case, it was Indian Territory and outlaw country, and they were visited by many seeking refuge. Belle did not encourage these activities. It was her hope, as expressed in one of her letters, ‘to live out her time in peace.’ There is no evidence that Belle was the leader of any outlaw band.

After their marriage, neither Belle nor Sam appeared in any official record until July 31, 1882, when they were charged with horse stealing. The charges stemmed from the Starrs’ roundup in the spring of 1882. They were working horses on a neighbor’s land and sought his permission to pen some of the animals in his corral. He agreed, but when he saw the horses, he pointed out that one belonged to another neighbor, Andrew Crane, and another to Sam Campbell. The Starrs ignored these comments. When they later sold the herd, Crane and Campbell brought charges. Belle and Sam appeared in District Court at Fort Smith on November 7, 1882. The grand jury handed up a true bill for larceny in Indian Territory. Tom Starr made bail for them, and they returned to Younger’s Bend to await trial.

The four-day trial was held in ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac C. Parker’s court early in March 1883. Belle was found guilty on both counts and Sam on only one (since the court lacked jurisdiction in cases where one Indian committed a crime against another). Judge Parker sentenced Sam to 12 months and Belle to two 6-month terms in the House of Correction in Detroit. The judge explained his rare display of leniency by pointing out that this was the first conviction for both defendants and that he hoped they would decide to become decent citizens.

The prison was a model institution, dedicated to education and reformation, in addition to punishment. Sam Starr, though, showed no interest in learning and was assigned to hard labor. Belle is reputed to have charmed the warden into appointing her as his ‘assistant.’ In any case, the Starrs were on their way back to Younger’s Bend after serving 9 months. Old Tom Starr had kept the place up for them. Belle and Sam soon busied themselves getting ready for spring planting. Belle had become plump and dowdy while in prison, but she still rode and danced gracefully. She often adorned herself in a black velvet riding habit and rode sidesaddle, carrying her six-shooter (she is so attired in her most publicized picture). She also liked to read and play a piano she had had freighted into the Bend.

Just before Christmas 1884, handsome young John Middleton knocked on the Starrs’ door. Middleton, who had probably met Belle earlier in Arkansas, was on the run for horse theft and murder. A pursuing posse lost his trail in the vicinity of Younger’s Bend. The fugitive hid out in the neighborhood for the next few months. By then, Sam Starr was spending considerable time away from home, returning only at irregular intervals. During these absences, Belle entertained casual guests, particularly Middleton.

Early in the spring of 1885, the treasuries of the Seminole and Creek Indians were robbed. The Starrs and Middleton were suspected, but there was no evidence. A posse raided the Starr home that spring, but found only Belle. The raid caused Middleton to reconsider remaining in the area. He and the Starrs planned his escape. Belle and Sam, along with daughter Pearl and son Eddie, were to take a trip. They were to depart with their saddle horses tied to their wagon, with Middleton hidden under canvas. At an opportune time, he was to take Pearl’s horse and flee. A problem arose, however, while they were camped for the night. Middleton somehow offended Pearl, and she refused to let him use her mount. Belle, likewise, would not part with her favorite steed. The next day, Belle and Eddie purchased a sorry mare for Middleton, who then departed with Pearl’s saddle and Belle’s Colt .45.

Several days later, others spotted the mare, muddy and with Pearl’s saddle on its back. A search turned up the body of John Middleton, who had apparently drowned while crossing a swollen river. When the Starrs got the news, they also learned that the person who had sold them the mare had not been the owner. Belle headed for home certain that she would be charged with larceny. She was correct. A writ was issued for her arrest in January 1886. She surrendered to the U.S. marshal at Fort Smith and was indicted, with trial set for September.

Meanwhile, Sam began having his own problems. He and two others were charged with the holdup of a U.S. mail hack. The case never came to court, but additional charges were filed against him for the robbery of a store and a U.S. post office. Sam went into hiding, becoming a fugitive just like the late John Middleton. Sam still made intermittent visits home, though; his friends and relatives made it easy for him to stay a step ahead of the law.

Several farm settlements were robbed in February 1886 by three bandits, one of whom was a woman dressed as a man. An eyewitness identified this person as Belle Starr. Subsequently, a posse raided the Starr home. Only Belle was present, and she was not immediately arrested. In April, however, a warrant for her arrest was issued. One evening in mid-May, two officers approached the Bend. Pearl spotted them and warned Sam, who slipped away. Belle greeted the men only to learn that she, too, was wanted.

Belle returned with the officers to Fort Smith, where she entered a not guilty plea. After making bail, she spent several days shopping and socializing. She had her photo taken on Saturday, May 23, 1886. The next day, she had another photo taken, this time with a convicted murderer named Blue Duck. She did it at the request of Blue Duck’s attorney, who apparently thought it would help his client in his pending appeal of a death sentence. This was the first and last time Belle saw Blue Duck. The picture, however, gave biographers fuel for yet another legend. Many portray her as having been Blue Duck’s mistress long before their meeting in Fort Smith. They also credit her with retaining attorney J. Warren Reed to plead Blue Duck’s case. The outlaw’s sentence was commuted to life, but without the help of attorney Reed, who was practicing in California in 1886.

Belle’s trial for the alleged February robberies was held in June 1886. None of the witnesses could identify her. Most witnesses, in fact, said that the three bandits had been ‘good sized men.’ She was discharged on June 29. Three months later, Belle returned to Fort Smith to stand trial for horse theft. On September 30, a jury handed down a ‘not guilty’ verdict. She hastened home, only to learn that Sam had been badly wounded.

A posse of Indian police had spotted Sam in a cornfield and opened fire, killing his horse and wounding him. After regaining consciousness, he had snatched the gun of one of his guards and fled to his brother’s home. Belle found him there and nursed his wounds. She begged him to turn himself in to the U.S. marshal, pointing out that a federal court would be easier on him than would the tribal council.

Sam turned himself in on October 4, 1886. He was indicted and released on bail. His case was not scheduled to be heard until February 1887. Instead of returning to Younger’s Bend right away, he and Belle stayed at Fort Smith, hoping to help his father. Old Tom Starr was on trial for introducing whiskey into the territory. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. Sam and Belle went home.

The Starrs were attending a friend’s Christmas party on December 17, 1886, when Sam encountered an old enemy, Frank West. He threw down on West and shot him dead, but not before being fatally wounded himself. The widow Starr returned to Younger’s Bend and took Jack Spaniard, a notorious outlaw, to her bed almost before Sam’s body was cold. Belle’s new arrangement was cut short when Spaniard was arrested, tried for murder, found guilty and hanged.

The Cherokee authorities maintained that Belle’s claim to her land at Younger’s Bend ended with Sam Starr’s death. This problem was easily solved. Belle took up with an adopted son of old Tom Starr, 24-year-old Bill July (alias Jim Starr), a Creek Indian. July moved in with Belle, thereby resolving the claim to the land; he was her last husband.

Belle’s son Eddie was almost 17, and he made no pretense of accepting Belle’s new husband. Meanwhile, Belle rejected the young man that her daughter Pearl, now 19, wanted to marry. Pearl was sent away to live with friends. During her absence, Belle tricked the erstwhile swain into believing that Pearl had forgotten him and married another. Sad and dejected, the young man sought consolation from another and was soon married. Pearl and this young man would later learn of Belle’s deception and meet secretly several times.

Belle became irate when she learned that Pearl was pregnant. She gave her daughter two alternatives. Pearl could visit a ‘noted Fort Smith physician,’ or leave and never bring her child into Belle’s presence. Pearl left to be with her grandmother and have her baby, Flossie, who was born in April 1887. Belle was not greatly concerned with Pearl’s absence; another problem required her attention in June–her new husband was arrested, indicted and released on bail for horse stealing. Then in July 1888, Eddie was charged with horse theft, giving him something in common with his stepfather. By that December, Eddie had left home.

The area near Younger’s Bend was being settled by farmers. One individual, Edgar A. Watson, and his wife had arrived seeking land to rent. Belle agreed to rental arrangements and accepted payment in advance. Later, as she became better acquainted with Mrs. Watson, she learned that Edgar Watson was wanted for murder in Florida. Remembering the tribal council’s threat to expel her from her land if she were caught harboring fugitives again, she attempted to back out of the deal with Watson. Her efforts were to no avail; Watson insisted that he would farm the land for which he had paid. Finally, in a face-to-face confrontation, she chided him with a comment that Florida authorities might be interested in his whereabouts. That did it. Watson was furious, but he accepted refund of his rent money and rode away. The Watsons settled on another farm in the vicinity.

On Saturday morning, February 2, 1889, Belle and her husband set out together from Younger’s Bend. July was headed to Fort Smith for his horse-stealing hearing, and Belle was going to a nearby community to shop. After Belle did her shopping, she and her husband spent the night with friends in San Bois (about 15 miles east of Younger’s Bend) before parting on Sunday morning. July continued on to Judge Parker’s court, while Belle started for home. She never made it.

Belle stopped at the house of some neighbors, the Rowes, on Sunday afternoon. Jackson Rowe’s home was a popular Sunday gathering place for members of the community. She hoped to see her son Eddie, who had been staying there, but he had left before she arrived. There were a number of other visitors, one of whom was Edgar Watson. Soon after Belle’s arrival, Watson left.

Belle ate and chatted with her friends. She was nibbling on a piece of cornbread as she went out the door and headed for Younger’s Bend. The road passed within several hundred yards of the Watson place. As Belle turned onto the river lane, a shotgun blast blew her from the saddle. She attempted to raise herself from the roadway, but a second shot boomed out, striking her in the face and shoulder. Her horse bolted and galloped home. Pearl, alarmed when Belle’s horse showed up riderless, set out at once. Meanwhile, Belle had been discovered by a youth returning home. Pearl and neighbors arrived at Belle’s side before she died, but she was unable to utter any last words.

Investigations of the scene revealed tracks leading toward the Watson cabin, but the trail petered out within a hundred yards or so of the building. The footprints were Watson’s size, and Watson owned a double-barreled shotgun. Several neighbors had heard the shots, but no one had seen anything. Neighbors and friends, including the Watsons, gathered at Belle’s home to pay their last respects. Belle was laid to rest on February 6 in front of the cabin at Younger’s Bend.

July accused Watson of the slaying, as did Eddie. Watson was arrested but subsequently acquitted, since all the evidence against him was circumstantial. Aware of July’s wrath, Watson and his wife decamped upon his release. No other attempt was ever made to identify Belle’s slayer. There were several other potential suspects besides Watson, including July himself. Apparently July had been caught playing around with a young Cherokee girl, and Belle had been making his life hell. He could have killed his wife before resuming his trip to Fort Smith. Just a few weeks after Belle’s death, July was mortally wounded by a deputy who was on his trail.

Belle’s children have also been mentioned as suspects. Eddie had threatened his mother at least once after she had disciplined him with a bullwhip, and Pearl had her own grudge–Belle had interfered with Pearl’s planned marriage and had worked to get Pearl’s daughter placed in an orphanage. But the most likely slayer was Watson, who had the motive and opportunity and was already a known murderer. He eventually returned to Florida, where he was killed in a shootout with a posse.

In summarizing her life for a Fort Smith Elevator reporter about a year before her death, Belle said, ‘I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.’ She certainly had seen her share of Civil War guerrillas, postwar outlaw friends and acquaintances on the run. Her grave site is near Eufair Lake, southeast of Porum, Okla. A horse was engraved on her tombstone, along with these words:

Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret
Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.

Richard D. Arnott, who has attempted to separate fact from fiction in the Old West for many years, writes from Ohio. For further reading: Belle Starr and Her Times, by Glenn Shirley; Hell on the Border, by S.W. Harman; and Starr Tracks: Belle and Pearl Starr, by Phillip W. Steele.

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