When the North-West Mounted Police was first organized in Ottawa, Canada, in September 1873, its authorized strength was barely 300 troopers. Its assignment was to uphold Canadian law over 300,000 miles of Western wilderness populated by discontented Indians and sometimes visited by whiskey traders and desperadoes on the run from the United States.
Given the long, violent history of lawlessness in the American West, the idea of so small a force as the North-West Mounted Police (or NWMP) maintaining the Queen’s law in the vast reaches of the Canadian frontier seemed ludicrous — and downright suicidal. By the early 1880s, however, the Mounties, as they soon came to be called, had established an authority over the vast area. Potential lawbreakers and renegades feared them. Indians trusted them to uphold justice.
Few law enforcement agencies in history accomplished so much with so few men — or with so little violence — as the NWMP. Although far from being superhuman, the Mounties did carry out their duties in their own way, relying as much on persuasion and a purposeful presence as they did on brute force. In consequence, more often than not brute force was not needed to drive a whiskey peddling operation out of the territory, dissuade a hotheaded Indian band from taking the warpath, or convince a felon to give himself up.
Human they may have been — ‘and oftentimes worse,’ as one veteran retrospectively put it — but the Mounties could not have succeeded without an ample sprinkling of exceptional characters in their ranks. A most remarkable and legendary figure of the NWMP’s critical early years was a man whose very name sounded as if it had been made up by a dime novelist: Inspector Sam Steele.
Samuel Benfield Steele was born on January 5, 1851, at Purbrook, near Orillia, Upper Canada (later Ontario), the son of Royal Navy Captain Elmes Steele and Anne Macdonald. Men of action had run through the Steele clan like water down Niagara Falls — young Sam’s predecessors had fought on the Plains of Abraham before Quebec in 1759, at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and at Waterloo in 1815.
It was none too astonishing, then, that a fair-haired, slender 15-year-old Sam Steele would enlist in the Canadian militia in 1866, as an ensign in the 35th (Simcoe Foresters) Battalion of Infantry. His unit participated in the defense of Canada against the Fenian raids of that year. After Canada became an independent member of the British Commonwealth, he joined the 1st Ontario Battalion of Rifles on May 1, 1870, to serve in the Red River Expedition to retake Fort Garry from rebellious Métis (Franco-Indian mixed bloods) under Louis David Riel. In 1871, Steele was one of the first to enlist in the newly formed A Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery, the first unit of the new Canadian Permanent Force.
In 1873, Steele left the army to join the newly organized North-West Mounted Police as a staff constable. The commanding officer of the paramilitary body was called ‘commissioner,’ and the command was divided into troops. Steele was still only 22, and so wiry that he wore a sash under his jacket to add some manly bulk to his appearance, but he already had a solid military record under his belt.
Steele’s A Troop, along with B and C troops, was rushed off by steamer from Toronto through the Great Lakes, and then marched 450 miles farther west to Lower Fort Garry (20 miles downriver from Winnipeg), where their personnel were sworn in on November 3, 1873. At that point, Commissioner George Arthur French learned to his dismay that most of his recruits had only claimed to be good riders. He assigned Steele to teach them horsemanship.
Train them Steele did, driving them hard throughout the winter and often picking them up, bruised and bloody, from falls on the frozen ground. Steele’s remedy for the frequent complaints of saddle sores was to issue salt to rub into the injured party’s wounds to form calluses. Eventually, one recruit wrote, ‘We became so tough I could sit on a prickly pear.’
On June 8, 1874, the NWMP began its march westward, with 275 Mounted Police, 20 Métis scouts and two 9-pounder cannons. After 16 days and 270 miles, however, torrential rains, hordes of grasshoppers, mosquitoes and a shortage of water and fodder for the horses left many of French’s men and their mounts too weak or sick to carry on. Those who could not continue were detached from the column and marched northwest to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Edmonton over a more established road, under the command of Inspector William D. Jarvis and Constable Steele. In mid-October, while French’s remaining Mounties established Fort Macleod (in southern Alberta, it was the first police outpost in Canada’s far west), Jarvis’ exhausted column staggered into Fort Edmonton, some of the men supporting their equally spent horses, having covered another 900 miles since July.
In spite of the hardships that had accompanied their journey, the Mounties soon managed to rout the whiskey peddlers and win the confidence of the Indians. In spring 1875, the police built their own post, Fort Saskatchewan, and that summer, Steele was promoted to chief constable.
By 1883, Sam Steele had served at several western posts with zeal and distinction and had risen to the rank of inspector. His assignment at that time was to follow the progress of the Canadian Pacific Railway — a routine job on the face of it, but one that was destined to present him with the greatest challenge of his long career.
During the early 1880s, thousands of men had swarmed north to work on Canada’s first transcontinental railroad. Saloons and brothels soon followed the bands of steel that stretched across the northern Plains. The Mounted Police were assigned the mission of protecting the railroad. Small detachments of scarlet-coated lawmen rode the lonely rail lines, guarding them against attack by Indians or outlaws.
The Mounties also had to enforce the law in the wild and turbulent construction camps. The Act for the Preservation of Peace in the Vicinity of Public Works prohibited drinking and gambling within a 10-mile radius of the tracks. Maintaining order brought them into frequent confrontations with whiskey traders, gamblers, prostitutes and the rugged railroad workers themselves. Leaving a trooper or two at intervals all along the route, Inspector Steele administered justice whenever he had to. One day, he would preside over a court in a tent at Regina, the next atop a Red River cart at Swift Current.
Gradually, the line of steel advanced through the land claimed by the fierce Blackfoot Confederacy and stretched from the Great Lakes to the Rockies. By the winter of 1884, the Canadian Pacific Railway had penetrated the mountains and was pushing on to join with those tracklayers coming to meet it from the west coast. At the same time, Steele established a new NWMP post at Beaver (also called Beaver Crossing or Beavermouth), west of the major railway construction through Kicking Horse Pass (in what would become British Columbia, near the Alberta border). A sturdy log building was built, containing 30 cells, a courtroom, mess hall and barracks.
Beaver was a typical railroad boomtown, made up of hastily constructed frame saloons and brothels. Fully aware of what he and his small band of lawmen faced, Steele made a grim observation, ‘Large numbers of gamblers, whiskey men and every description of criminal who had been plying their trade on the American railways are establishing their dens on every little creek along the line.’
During the winter, the Mounties kept the jail cells filled with a regularly rotating succession of prisoners charged with drunkenness, petty thievery and fighting. In February 1885, the frightening roar of avalanches crashing down from the high mountain peaks could be heard. By March, a new, ominous rumbling was being heard along the line — the subdued, discontented mutterings of unpaid workers threatening to strike.
Steele himself was sympathetic to their grievances. He had watched the men as they labored for 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, blasting rail beds through solid walls of rock. He had observed as they laid track during the long, cold, wet winter. Sometimes they worked 14-hour shifts to compensate for lost time due to bad weather. Steele knew that many of the workers had families depending on the wages they made on the railroad. His duty, however, was to protect the Canadian Pacific Railway, and protect it he would, despite his personal feelings on the matter.
While dark threats of violence moved through the railroad construction camps, Steele received most unwelcome news. For months, the Métis had accused the Ottawa government of unjust surveying practices in the North-West Territories’ Saskatchewan district (the province of that name was created in 1905), where they had resettled after being driven from the Red River region (present-day Manitoba) in the 1870s. They had summoned the charismatic Louis Riel back from exile in the United States, and he had agreed to lead them in a crusade against the Canadian authorities. On March 26, 1885, the Métis, organized into a fighting force by plainsman Gabriel Dumont, had ambushed and routed a Mounted Police patrol at Duck Lake. Rebellion had broken out in the North-West Territories, and Riel was calling upon the Crees and the Blackfoot Confederacy to join in a general uprising. Steele faced the chilling realization that, because of the rebellion by the Métis (the so-called North-West Rebellion), he and his small detachment could expect no reinforcements should any disturbances erupt in the mountains.
At that critical juncture, Steele’s apprehension over the looming conflict with the unpaid construction workers was compounded by his physical problems. He was feeling a slow decline in his energy and strength. He recognized the all-too-familiar signs — mountain fever!
On April 1, 1885, angry workers left the job and came to Steele’s office, complaining that they had received no pay for many months. Steele pleaded with them to be patient for just a little longer. But he knew that they would not heed his advice, so he warned Ottawa that the strike would turn into a riot if something was not done quickly to satisfy the workers’ legitimate grievances.
It was already too late. Cries of ‘Strike!’ spread down the rail line. Angry workers were storming back toward Beaver. At that same time, Steele was bedridden, so immobilized by the virulent fever that he could barely raise his head as he tried to concentrate on the reports of violence that were breaking out all along the railway. Meanwhile, the telegraph key crackled in the orderly room. An aide delivered the message that had just flashed across the lines from Calgary: ‘For God’s sake come! There is danger of attack from the Blackfoot!’
But Steele had his own problems closer to home. Nearly 1,200 workers had joined the strike, and some 300 of them, many armed with revolvers and rifles, were swarming up the line toward the Beaver railhead, stopping the work of nonstriking track-laying, bridge-building and teamster crews. The strikers even managed to stop a trainload of workers, but only briefly. James Ross, in charge of mountain construction, mounted the engine himself, ordered full steam and stove through the mob while bullets ricocheted off the cab.
Thoughts raced through Steele’s feverish brain as he came to a decision about what action to take. The railroad property must be protected and the strike suppressed before his small detachment could respond to the Indian threat to the east. With a feeling of desperation and frustration, Steele called in his second-in-command, Sergeant Billy Fury, and gave him a monumental order, ‘Take five men and stop them!’
Fury, who was described as a ‘determined little bulldog of a man,’ dashed with his Mounties to confront the strikers in a gorge not much wider than the tracks, capable — in theory — of being defended by only a few men. Standing abreast at intervals, the lawmen tightened their grips on their Winchester rifles as they stared at the swarms of enraged strikers surging toward them out of the mist, firing rifles and pistols into the gray sky. The chorus of angry yells and booming gunfire mounted to a terrifying crescendo as it came ever closer.
Finally, the momentum of the mob began to slow as the strikers sensed the raw courage that confronted them. As the strikers inched to within yards of the lawmen, Sergeant Fury shouted in a voice filled with the confidence and authority of a seasoned soldier; ‘Anyone who tries to pass this line will be shot!’ Stunned into momentary silence by the boldness and discipline of the Mounties, the mob could hear the click of rounds being levered into Winchester chambers. The resolve of Fury and his men was as clear as the scarlet coats they wore. Unnerved by the cold, unflinching opposition of the small skirmish line, the frustrated strikers paused. Then, breaking into small groups, they turned and stamped toward the saloons of Beaver to find some liquid courage.
Fury and his men gave a few deep sighs of relief, then briefly exchanged a few grins and nods. They had met the challenge and won — at least for the moment. Fury then led them in a sprint back to their headquarters. Even while Fury was reporting the action to Steele at his bedside, however, more trouble erupted. One of his men, Constable Peter Kerr, had entered the shantytown to arrest a striker named Hugh Behan, who was agitating and inciting an attack on the Mountie barracks. The lone constable’s intentions may have been good, but the same could not be said for his judgment or his timing — the arrest was thwarted as Kerr was roughed up by a crowd of Behan’s friends.
Upon learning of the incident, Steele was more resolved than ever to incarcerate Behan. ‘We must take the man at any cost,’ he told Fury in a weary but determined voice. ‘It will never do to let him or the remainder of the gang think they can play with us. Take what men you require and arrest him.’
Selecting a couple of Mounties to accompany him, Fury dashed toward the Beaver saloons and located Behan in a shanty bar, surrounded by a drunken group of confederates. The unarmed Mounties boldly pushed their way through the hostile crowd and dragged the protesting Behan into the street and toward a cell at NWMP headquarters. Moments later, however, the howling strikers surged out of the bar and flooded the street with a human wave, overwhelming the lawmen and freeing the prisoner. Empty-handed, with his uniform and dignity in tatters, Fury rushed back to Steele to report this latest development. Steele sent him right back out again, with three constables and a baleful addition to his orders: ‘Take your revolvers. Shoot anyone who interferes with the arrest.’
Accompanied by Constables Franklin W. Fane, T. Craig and John Walters, Fury darted back across the short wooden bridge that connected the NWMP post to the town for another clash with the strikers. Back in headquarters, the local magistrate, George Johnston, tried to encourage an agitated Steele to stay in bed by standing at the window and supplying the inspector with running accounts of the showdown. After crossing the bridge, the four Mounties turned a corner and disappeared behind a cabin. Moments later, Steele heard a shot. ‘There is one gone to hell, Steele,’ cried Johnston.
Steele shook his head, desperately trying to clear his brain and body of the feverish delirium, while his ears picked up the angry howls of the strikers as they closed in once more on the Mountie post. Rubbing his eyes, he peered through the window and saw Fury and his men conducting a desperate but orderly withdrawal. Following Steele’s orders to the letter, Fury had arrested Behan and shot an interfering striker in the shoulder.
As Steele struggled to stand, he could see two of the Mounties loping across the small bridge near the barracks, dragging along their kicking and screaming prisoner. At their heels, Fury and the fourth Mountie attempted to slow the violent momentum of the mob, which had been aroused anew and followed just a few yards behind.
The frenzy of the strikers had been ignited by whiskey and by agitators like Behan, but their rage was now being kept fueled by a woman wearing a scarlet dress. She marched in front of the crowd, shrieking curses at the Mounties and haranguing the railroad workers with obscene references to their manhood — or lack thereof.
It was one of those moments when matters could take a turn in any direction, with consequences that would be felt for years to come. Time, Steele decided, for him to take personal command, fever and fatigue be damned. The inspector painfully labored to pull on his boots, then grabbed a Winchester from a constable on guard duty and staggered toward the bridge. As he approached the strikers, he jammed the rifle into his shoulder and took aim at the crowd, while yelling in a booming command voice for them to halt. ‘They answered with curses and cries,’ Steele later reported, ‘but they halted.’
The strikers were startled to see the legendary Mountie facing them. It had been widely believed that Steele was dying, and those false rumors now worked to his advantage. ‘Look,’ someone in the crowd screamed, ‘his own death bed makes no difference to him!’ At that moment, Constable Walters ran out of patience with his struggling, abusive prisoner and slammed a fist into Behan’s temple. The dazed, now compliant, striker was ‘trailed by the collar like a rag’ into a jail cell.
The mob was silent now, save for the scarlet-dressed woman, who continued in her unladylike efforts to keep the men inflamed. Sensing failure, she became even more enraged at the control that Steele had so quickly established over the crowd and ran toward him, screeching, ‘You redcoated…’
Steele calmly deflected her assault and said to one of his men, ‘Take her in, too!’ The woman appealed to the strikers for help, but none dared challenge Steele and the now fully assembled Beaver Mounted Police detachment as she was dragged off to join Behan behind bars.
Steele’s next order was for Magistrate Johnston to come out with a copy of the Riot Act. When he arrived, Steele shouted out above the hooting of the strikers; ‘Listen to this, and keep your hands off your guns!’ Even as the magistrate read the act, which authorized the use of practically every means to suppress a disturbance that threatened the public welfare, the strikers heard the clicks of cartridges being loaded into Winchesters.
After the magistrate had finished the formal reading, Steele moved forward to address them. Despite his fever, he stood erect, ramrod-straight, as if he were on a parade field. His eyes narrowed and scanned the strikers with a fierce stare. His jaw jutted forward and in a slow but sharp authoritative voice, he added his own personal warning to the cautionary provisions of the Riot Act: ‘You have taken advantage of the fact that rebellion has broken out in the northwest and that I have only a handful of men. Desperate diseases require desperate remedies. And I have both a disease and a remedy here. I warn you that if I find more than 12 of you standing together or any large crowd assembled, I will open fire upon you and mow you down! Now disperse at once and behave yourselves!’
As Steele and his eight-man detachment faced the strikers, who were estimated at approximately 700, other armed men began to join the thin red line. Individually and in small groups, merchants, engineers and other law-abiding citizens assembled behind Steele’s formation and soon swelled to a considerable number. The Mounties were no longer alone.
The strikers dispersed and trudged back to town. Steele and the Beaver detachment had won. The next day he reported, ‘All along the line was quiet as a country village on Sunday.’ Over the next few days, the ringleaders of the strike were pursued, arrested and given a choice of a $100 fine or six months’ hard labor. But justice was served both ways. On April 7, the workers’ pay finally arrived. Once Steele’s fever broke, he made a rather simple final assessment of the violence that had been so narrowly averted: ‘The conduct of the police was all that could be desired. They had faced the powerful mob with as much resolution as if backed by hundreds.’
There was no time for rest and reward for Steele and his men, however. It was now time for them to saddle up and ride to Calgary. The North-West Rebellion was still raging.
The situation could have been worse. Despite their own discontent over a cut in their promised allotment of rations by a penurious Ottawa government in the midst of a hard winter, only about 400 Indians in the Saskatchewan district chose to throw their lot in with Riel’s Métis uprising. Influential Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot had come out strongly in favor of peace, and the vast majority of his people concurred. The exceptions made up two war bands, one led by Crowfoot’s adopted son, Poundmaker, and the other by Cree Chief Big Bear, who had never signed any treaty with the Canadian government.
On March 28, 1885, Poundmaker’s band briefly laid siege to the settlement at Battleford, then went on a looting spree among the line residences surrounding the village. At about that same time, Big Bear’s band descended on the hamlet of Frog Lake along the North Saskatechewan River. Incited by Big Bear’s shaman, Wandering Spirit, the Crees killed the local Indian agent and eight others, and took three survivors captive. Only the agent’s nephew, Henry Quinn, escaped to report the massacre at Fort Pitt, 30 miles away.
Big Bear also moved on to Fort Pitt, but Hudson’s Bay Company trader W.H. McLean averted disaster through his long-standing friendship with the Cree leader. When Big Bear told him that the Indians’ fight was only with the ‘government people’ in the fort, McLean agreed to put all civilians, including his own wife and children, under Big Bear’s protection. Big Bear proved to be as good as his word — although it wasn’t easy accompanying his war band, the civilians were not molested, not even by the white-hating Wandering Spirit. On the other hand, the police detachment that remained in Fort Pitt was attacked. During an attempt to escape, one Mountie was killed, another wounded and a third captured.
To deal with the crisis in the Saskatchewan district, Canada mobilized its own regular army, militia and Mounted Police into an expeditionary force called the North-West Field Force. William Cornelius Van Horne, manager of the Canadian Pacific, placed his still-unfinished railroad at the troops’ disposal to dramatically demonstrate its value as a means of transport and, in so doing, to secure additional financial assistance from the government toward its completion.
Once it arrived in the contested region, the North-West Field Force split into three columns. The main one, commanded by Maj. Gen. Frederick Dobson Middleton, marched on Riel’s self-proclaimed capital of Batoche. A second unit, under Colonel William Otter, moved against Poundmaker’s band. The third, under Maj. Gen. Thomas Bland Strange, marched out of Calgary to pacify the area around Edmonton, then turned east along the North Saskatchewan River, where Strange hoped to trap Big Bear’s Crees. Strange’s column consisted of 375 infantry, three Stoney Indian scouts, 100 armed ranch hands and settlers, and 25 Mounted Police, including Sam Steele. Strange, a retired army officer who had taken up ranching in the Alberta district before being called back into the service, ordered the Mounties to wear cowboy outfits in the field, claiming that their conspicuous scarlet coats made his eyes ache. The one exception was Steele, who — according to Strange — ‘could not give up the swagger of his scarlet tunic, and I did not ask him to make the sacrifice.’
While Strange’s column advanced toward Fort Pitt, the North-West Rebellion reached it climax. After a series of costly reverses at the hands of Gabriel Dumont’s cunning sharpshooters, Middleton’s troops overwhelmed the Métis and overran their provisional capital of Batoche on May 12, 1885. Riel surrendered three days later, but Dumont escaped to the United States — where he turned up a year later in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. After relieving Battleford, Colonel Otter’s troops had suffered a stinging defeat at Cut Knife Hill on May 2 at the hands of Poundmaker’s Indians, led by his war chief, Fineday. However, the weary Poundmaker decided to surrender when Middleton’s victorious column arrived at Battleford.
That left only Big Bear. On May 25, after a 350-mile trek, Strange’s column reached Fort Pitt and relieved its beleaguered garrison. Big Bear had already moved on, and Strange wasted no time in setting out in pursuit. On May 28, he caught up with the Crees at Frenchman’s Butte and, after launching an initial frontal attack, ordered his cavalry to begin a flanking maneuver. Soon, however, the flankers reported that they themselves were being outflanked by Big Bear’s braves. Strange ordered his troopers to break off the action to prevent what he called ‘committing Custer.’
On June 3, Middleton arrived with 200 troops and assumed command of Strange’s column. By that time, Big Bear had withdrawn into the swampy northern wilderness, taking his white hostages with him. Big Bear reckoned that most of the Canadian soldiers would be out of their element and unable to follow him. But he had not reckoned on Sam Steele and his Mounties, who now took the lead and went right in after him. The Mounties caught up with the hostiles at Loon Lake, and another brisk firefight ensued, during which Sergeant Fury was wounded in the chest, two other Mounties were wounded and four Indians were killed before the Cree disengaged.
Escaping into the woods, Big Bear’s braves managed to gain another reprieve. But they were starving, and it was clear that Steele, acting more like a policeman than a soldier, was not going to give up until he had brought those responsible for the killings at Frog Lake to justice. On June 18, the Indians released some white prisoners with a message pleading for ‘our Great Mother, the Queen, to stop the Government soldiers and Red Coats from shooting us.’ Soon afterward, they began turning themselves in at Fort Pitt. Big Bear and his 12-year-old son continued their flight, somehow slipping right through the closing cordon of Mounties and militiamen, and walked 100 miles eastward to Fort Carlton. There, they surrendered to a surprised police sergeant on July 2. The North-West Rebellion was over.
The rebellion cost the lives of about 80 whites and roughly an equal number of Métis and Indians. In Regina, 18 Métis were sentenced to as long as seven years’ imprisonment for treason. After a lengthy trial, their leader, Louis Riel, was hanged on November 16, 1885 — nine days after the last iron spike was driven to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose progress his revolt had initially impeded, then accelerated by proving its worth.
At Battleford, 11 Indians were tried for murder and sentenced to death. Three were reprieved, but eight, including Wandering Spirit, were hanged from a common scaffold on November 27. As a gesture of magnanimity, the Canadian court sentenced Big Bear and Poundmaker to three years’ imprisonment instead of the gallows. Even though neither man served more than two years of his sentence, they were both so physically ill and broken in spirit that they each died within six months of their release from prison.
Sam Steele’s role in putting down the rebellion — and his earlier handling of the crisis at Beaver — had not gone unnoticed. In August 1885, he had been promoted to superintendent. In 1887, he led 75 Mounties to British Columbia to settle a dispute between that far western province and the Kootenai Indians. The policemen built a post (Fort Steele) and stayed about a year. In December 1888, Steele was given command of Fort Macleod.
In 1890, Steele took time out to marry Marie Elizabeth Maye de Lotbinière Harwood of Vaudreuil, Quebec. They had two daughters and one son. The latter, Lt. Col. Harwood Elmes Robert Steele, would follow his father’s footsteps into the ranks of the Mounties and would later write Policing the Arctic (1935) and several novels based on the exploits of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP (the NWMP’s new name starting in 1920).
During the 1896–98 Klondike gold rush (see related articles in the August 1996 and August 1997 issues of Wild West), Sam Steele was in charge of NWMP posts on the White and Chilkoot passes. In 1898-99, his jurisdiction was extended to the whole of the Yukon and British Columbia, and his service in the region earned him promotion to the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel.
During the Boer War, Steele returned to military service, commanding Lord Strathcona’s Horse and later staying to command the Transvaal Division of the South African Constabulary from 1901 to 1906. Upon returning to Canada, he rejoined the Permanent Force and commanded first the Calgary, then the Winnipeg military districts. During that time he attained the rank of major general and, in 1914, he was made inspector general for western Canada. In 1914, too, Steele published an autobiography, Forty Years in Canada.
At the outbreak of World War I, Steele raised, organized and trained the 2nd Canadian Division, which he took to England in 1915. The ex-Mountie was not sent to the Western Front, however. Instead, he was placed in command of the Shorncliffe area in eastern England, where he stayed until the end of the war on November 11, 1918, after which he was discharged. It was to be a short retirement, however. Sam Steele died at Putney, England, on January 30, 1919, at age 68.
This article was written by Jon Guttman and John Mancini and originally appeared in Wild West magazine.
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