A molten sunbeam lanced the wooden slats in the quiet saloon. It spread over the air, over the spread of cards on the poker table’s worn green felt. The stains were darkest where the felt had been frayed; some of them weren’t stains at all but gray cigar burns. The hot sunlight washed the table in its heat, scouring the players’ uneven whiskers, black nostrils aflare with black hairs, tanned faces bent to their hands, and the quiet air was more restless for it, the uneven, encroaching heat that rolled over the saloon like a nettlesome tumbleweed. All sorts of particles in all sorts of shapes gushed upward in the shafts of liquid light. These motes swirled with the dust, and the smoke.
The man with the cigar reached down to scratch his thigh. But a significant look from his tablemate prompted him to raise his hand again, open, aboveboard. He nodded amiably, reaching to pull the cigar from his mouth.
But he couldn’t bluff anymore.
The look in his opponent’s eyes told him too much. If he was going to walk away with his dignity, if not his money, it would take something more than grit to make it to the end of the hand. Thankfully, he knew he wasn’t smart enough to know what that was. He decided to try a joke.
“Knock knock,” he said softly.
The otters were playing poker with the abalone again. The youngest otter, Kelp Tecumseh Keystone Species, was doing well. He was up by five, although he had lost several tokens to his appetite. His remaining mollusks were in a slimy pile on his belly. He had folded his last hand and now forbid himself from nibbling any more. The otter floating to his left, Kelp Shoot It! Keystone Species, was down to his last abalone. The otter floating across from them, Kelp No Diving Keystone Species, was already eating his ante.
Kelp Shoot It! swept his bristled mustache across his fangs. “That’s two more in the pile, Kelp.”
Kelp Tecumseh Keystone Species looked up from his thick pile of eternally escaping gastropods. “I folded.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Kelp Shoot It! snapped. Kelp Shoot It! always got snappy when he was losing. Kelp Tecumseh knew this and enjoyed provoking him. With a mouthful of abalone, Kelp No Diving silently added another two to the pot (which wasn’t really a pot but the belly of a large sleeping otter whose name they did not know).
In one hour Kelp Tecumseh Keystone Species went all in. But the sleeping otter who constituted their pot chose that moment to dive with his purloined dinner into the kelp forest. It was predictable, they reflected, and not so unique an event. But sea otters, by and large, accept that fortune favors the bold or well-rested.