"Have you noticed how he keeps shifting?" she asked her companions. The four onager females, like other types of donkeys, kept themselves to a wide territory. All of them had shared their patch of semi-desert scrublands with a male for most of a year. The older two had shared the same territory for years longer.
"He's not eating the palmetto bush," the eldest remarked. "He keeps looking up at us."
"Is he watching you?"
"No, you." She brayed at the youngest and fattest of the bunch.
The eldest, the lead mare, turned away from the lichens she'd been eating off the ground around the bramble patch. With a sigh, she headed back onto the grassy walkway that led to the stream. They had been following the same path for most of the morning.
Although the stream had dried out over the winter, its center channel retained pockets of water and ice under the hard, pebbly ground. Even better, the male had dug a watering hole that reached beneath the stream bed. Every few days, they marched over to it. That hole always provided them with adequate water. Other animals used it, too, and those animals gave way to the onagers when it was their turn to visit. Even the large cats knew who had provided the water.
"The ice is melting," observed the youngest. "I suppose it must be getting close to mating season. Is anyone starting to feel it?"
"Not me," said her friend.
The older two snorted. Although they seemed to find the idea funny, they admitted it would explain the jack's distracted behavior. But none of them felt their estrous approaching. And the male kept lagging behind.
"I don't know why he keeps staring at you." The shorter jennet onager turned around to look at the male. He lingered next to the palmetto bush with a leaf in his mouth.
"Maybe he smells another female somewhere and she's early into her estrous." The large, youngest onager glanced away from the scene. Her mind awoke to the possibilities. "He could think it's me."
"She'd be a month ahead of schedule, then," said one of the older companions up front. "And we'd smell her as well as he would if she were anywhere close."
The herd leader changed course to inspect a hoof-high staggerbush. She nuzzled the ground around it in a search for lichens. Her nose located a shoot of new grass. Her tongue swept out. She nibbled and swallowed.
"If it's not that, it must be another male," the youngest guessed.
"I haven't heard another male bray for two days, not since our jack drove off the last one." The leader picked up her head. She swished her tail and marched onward. Her closest companion followed. "You're thinking too hard about this."
The younger two held back. One of them stole a glance at the male. He'd wandered away from the bush, apparently in a half-hearted attempt to catch up. Clenched between his teeth lay the same leaf as before. His stare transformed from a vacant one into one that focused on them.
"He's still not eating," said the youngest.
"He's looking at you," her friend whispered. "Maybe he's not right in the head."
"Did he take a kick from the other male?" She remembered the two jacks facing off. They'd reared high on their hind legs with their front hooves lashing out. They'd kept distance between them, though. It had been mostly a show of strength.
"No, I didn't see that," said her friend.
"Me neither, I suppose." She struggled to make them come into contact in her memory but couldn't. "But that doesn't mean he's thinking right."
"He seems normal otherwise." They watched his slow, relentless approach. "There's got to be something else on his mind."
The male's focus on them started to make the youngest onager nervous. That, combined with his lack of eating, prompted her to scoot forward. Her friend followed. The older two had left them behind. The younger ones broke into a trot to make up the distance. Mature company might be welcome. The elders seemed cranky, though. Maybe they didn't want anyone to catch up.
"They've told him something about me, something bad." Abruptly, the scenario made sense to her. She brayed to her friend. "That must be it. That's why he keeps looking at me. He's angry."
"Why would they do that?"
"They're jealous of my health. They're plotting to turn him against me."
"Well, I haven't heard about it."
"You're just saying that." Sometimes her friend seemed too dense to believe. "You could be part of it. How do I know you're not?"
"How do you know anything? Maybe you're not thinking right."
Her eyes narrowed. She regarded her former ally with suspicion. "Everything I say is logical."
"Logical, maybe." The other onager huffed. She raised her snout as if she were offended. "But it doesn't fit the facts as I know them."
"It fits with all the facts I know." She couldn't decide if her friend was stupid or part of the plot.
"Not all of them." The onager lifted her nose again.
The distance between them grew larger. They passed on either side of thorn bush. Neither of them swerved back toward the other.
"They're plotting to kick me out of the territory. That's it." She scowled at the pair of females ahead of them. At a suspicious thought, she spun to glare at the male, who was still far behind. She resisted the urge to bray in his direction and confront him. "It's all a plot between the older jennets and the jack. They're going to push me off on that horrible, runty male who visits. His territory is on the border. He marches right up to our watering hole."
"Your theories are getting wilder and wilder." The other halted. She gave companion a sideways glance.
The larger female came to a halt a few paces later. She considered the chances of the other three keeping a plot a secret.
"Get out!" She charged her former friend, teeth showing. She butted and nipped. The other onager started to run. "Get away!"
She kept driving at the other female until she ran off.
Then the youngest onager was on her own. She considered whether or not it was time to turn from the grassy path. True, it led to the stream bed. She needed water. Her chest and throat felt tight. The wet smell of the pebbly stream bed wafted to her in the breeze. But perhaps the plot against her was vile enough to justify it. She could find a patch of ice to eat elsewhere. She could dig up a lichen or a fern in the underbrush. But she couldn't fend off the other onagers all at once if she let herself get surrounded.
Perhaps the conspiracy was deadlier than she thought. Instead of leaving her to the strange male in a foreign territory, they might abandon her entirely. They could mean for her to become a meal for the wolves. She imagined the wolf pack she'd seen once as its members formed a circle around her. They would pull her down from all sides.
She paused, lost in thought, her breathing rapid.
"Hey," said a voice behind her.
She swung her head. It was the roan-and-white male. He'd caught up. Naturally, he'd approached her, she noted with suspicion, rather than continuing past her to the others.
"So what's all the braying, laughter, and biting about?" he said.
He doesn't know, she thought. Or he's pretending. If this is a plot to get rid of me, of course he'd pretend. He's probably part of it.
In her anger and impatience, she turned her back on him. She wasn't sure if she should leave the path to go her own direction but she did know that she couldn't trust herself to speak. In her anger, she didn't know what she would say.
The male bit her on the tail. It didn't hurt much but it startled her. She leaped forward.
"What was that for?" she cried. She spun around. "What did they tell you?"
"What did who tell me?" The look on his face was, of all things, one of boredom. He spit something from his mouth.
"No one has talked to me all morning. You had a burr on your tail. I bit it off," replied the jack. He snorted. "I got tired of seeing it."