In the smallest of bison herds lived the largest, most powerful male, thick of shoulder, armed with horns, hooves, and heavy fur. He led his throng from tundra to plains for foraging. In the summer, the nearby males joined the rest of the group for the breeding season. As in other such conclaves, each male or female concentrated on their rivalries during this time.
But even after mating season ended, members of the herd stayed focused on rivalries. It was a trend that had continued for years. All into the fall and through the winter, the problem grew. It remained through the departure of the male herd. It worsened when the males rejoined. It was so prevalent that the lead male had to speak.
"I can't keep watch on the entire herd all of the time," he told the lead females. "Even I must sleep. There are many grey wolves gathering. Other bison need to fulfill their duties as adults."
"We see the wolves," said his most recent mate. "And we watch you drive them off."
"When I was young, all adults pitched in to defend. I don't think we can continue with only me and a few others."
Dusk arrived. In the waning light, additional wolves emerged from the north. As the lead male had done before, he gathered his allies.
Lone wolves sometimes take down adult bison on their own. They were powerful foes and, on this night, attackers outnumbered defenders. The wolves stampeded the herd. The lead bison dashed to protect the calves. All of the young ones were slow on their feet. The herd left them behind. Predators swarmed to take the youngest.
One of the leader's allies, an old male, fell in the fierce defense and was killed by the wolves. In the aftermath, the leader succeeded in rescuing the children. Only four females and three grown males remained by his side for the duration.
When he brought the calves back to the main herd, he roared.
"Everyone must defend the children!" the male bellowed in his fury. "Everyone! It's is the duty of every adult. What kind of herd doesn't protect the young?"
"I have no children," said one male.
"My calf was born first. He kept up," said a female.
"Listen to yourselves!" The male stomped the ground. "You all benefited from the herd when you were young. You lived under the protection of the adults. They took responsibility. If they had left you to fend for yourself the way you left our calves this evening, you would be dead."
"The times were different."
"We have our own struggles," said a mother.
"A herd that doesn't care for its young will soon be old," he insisted. "Then it will perish. Next time, I expect you to look after the calves."
Over the course of an hour, he talked them into it. Everyone agreed, whether due to his insistence or because they had been prompted to remember their youth, to take part in their mutual defense. Even disgruntled bison remembered how they had been helped by the herd once.
By morning, a few wolves showed themselves again. They came from the east and the north. Adult bison swarmed to defend their young. The predators hung back to watch the herd and study it for weakness. Perhaps they felt satiated by their recent kill. They waited.
In the following dusk, more wolves came. The herd could not escape. Some of the adults lost their courage. In the morning, an attack by a lone wolf wounded a female. The wolf escaped unharmed. The leader and three others chased it to no avail.
The lead male returned, troubled by the lack of herd spirit. He reminded the adult bison of their promise to protect the calves.
That evening, a pack of wolves chased the herd. Again, the children fell behind. Again, the leader and a few others mounted a defense. Despite their efforts, one of the attackers wounded a calf. Then four wolves latched onto and dragged down a female, possibly the calf's mother.
By the time the leader and his band of rescuers returned to the herd, they were trembling with exhaustion. Their only consolation was that the wounded child had recovered. She no longer bled and she seemed hardy enough to survive. That was a victory.
"You were gone a long while," said the leader's recent mate, who had stayed with the great herd. "A lone wolf came again. We did not know what to do."
"You defended yourselves, I hope."
"Why were you not here?"
The leader described his situation. He could not protect the whole herd. No one could. "You must take responsibility, all of you. I realize now, that our herd must be weak. It's not that our adults here aren't strong. But the wolves follow us, our group, more than any other. That must be because they know that we will give up our members to them."
"But it's the fault of the children themselves," said a female. "They are too slow."
"Why would you expect children to fend for themselves? You are the ones who are fully grown. Calves fall behind because they are weak and small. They need us to provide food, water, and protection."
"Then it's the fault of their parents. The parents should provide."
"And if they cannot? How long can we survive without helping one another?" The male raised his voice to the crowd. "Are we not, each of us, responsible to the rest?"
Silence was the response. The leader had almost made up his mind to leave. He decided to give them a last chance.
"Who is responsible for this child?" he called, hoping that the adults would call back to him in their acceptance of responsibility.
"Who is the mother?" a female asked.
The bull turned and left. He had been their leader for so long, others tried to follow. Whenever those who had answered 'not me' tried to join him, the bull drove them off. He allowed those who helped the herd to remain by his side. The others, he left to themselves.