eg rushed in the front door, nearly colliding with her younger brother, Johnny. “Hey sis, where's the fire?” he teased. “Gangway!” Peg panted, pushing past him. Her long legs took the stairs two steps at a time as she raced up to her bedroom on the second floor of their comfortable suburban home. She glanced at the clock on her bedside table, whose hands stood at 3:20. Would she make it? She tore off the crisp white shirt with the Peter Pan collar, the full plaid skirt, the loafers and bobby sox. “Hateful things!” she muttered to herself, tossing them into the back of her closet. Turning, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her lanky frame clad only in sensible cotton underwear and a tiny “training” brassiere. Peg frowned, disliking the gawky girl she saw, with her bright red hair and freckles. Not quite sixteen, she was unable to appreciate the blossoming sensuality in the full red lips, the keen intelligence shining from candid blue eyes. She saw only the length of her legs, not their shapeliness.
Wasting no time, she pulled on her worn jodhpurs and an old flannel shirt that had belonged to her beloved Uncle Roger. She tugged on her riding boots, then clumpety-clumped down the back stairs to the kitchen, pulling on her gray wool cardigan. Johnny was taking a Coke from the fridge, balancing his baseball bat, with his mitt slung over it, on his shoulder. He was just taking a noisy gulp when they both heard the front door open and the cool patrician voice of their older sister, Carol. “Peg, are you here? We're going to be late for the meeting of the Fall Frolic decorating committee.” In an instant, Peg was out the back door and on her bicycle.
The autumn breeze cooled Peg's flushed cheeks as she rode her bicycle down Meadowbrook Lane toward Chatham Stables. Her heart lightened and the pedals seemed to sing beneath her feet as she got farther away from Carol and the frightening world of femininity she represented, and closer to the stables, her true home. Oh, she'd tried to fit in at Chatham Day School, and at the country club. She'd hunched down to conceal her height. She'd tried to talk about nail polish and Rock Hudson as if she gave a darn about either of them. But deep down Peg knew her efforts were hopeless; she would never be popularânot like Carol, who ruled the smooth set at Chatham Day, Carol with her honey-blond pageboy, and star quarterback Fred Grayson as her steady. At Chatham Day, Peg would always be in the shadow of her older sister. At the stables, she could be herself, surrounded by people who thought horses were the most important thing in the world!
And there was another reason Peg did not want to miss today's visit to the stables: Pat Kowalski, the new stableboy. He was different from other boys, and although she had known him only a week, Peg felt strangely drawn to him. But he was often distant, responding to Peg's questions with clipped monosyllables. To Peg, he was still an enigma.
Here were the stables! Peg glided under the rustic wooden sign and, jumping off her bike, wheeled the vehicle into the tack room. She stood there a moment, inhaling the smellsâleather, oats, and that sweaty, musky, indefinable scent that said “horses.” Then she went to greet Merrylegs, her faithful old pony. She had belonged to Peg since Peg's ninth birthday, and it seemed not so long ago that she and Merrylegs had been part of a troupe of other little girls and their ponies. Peg sighed. Now the other ponies were sold, their former mistresses no longer interested in horses, instead inexplicably fascinated by clothes and boys. Even Marjorie and Doreen, Peg's closest pals in the pony club days, now acted as if they didn't know a forelock from a fetlock. Peg had heard her mother and Carol discussing her, wondering when she, too, would get past the “horse phase.” How desperately Peg wanted them to understand that she would never tire of horses!
As she reached Merrylegs's stall, she heard Pat's voice. “Whisht, girl, whisht,” was all he said, in a low soothing tone, and Peg's skin prickled. Deliberately, she sauntered down the line of stalls, trying to act casual.
Pat was in a stall with a beautiful dappled gray mare Peg had never seen before, whose flaring nostrils and fine muzzle revealed thoroughbred blood. She stood no more than sixteen hands, Peg guessed, but every inch of her was marked by perfect conformation. Catching Peg's scent, the new horse put her ears back, and danced away from her, crowding Pat against the wall.
“Whoa!” said Pat, glancing up to see what was alarming the highbred horse. “Watch it,” he warned curtly as he caught sight of Peg standing hesitantly in the stall doorway. “Garbo's edgy. She used to be a circus horse, and it seems she was tormented by one of the clowns.”
“Oh, how awful,” breathed Peg. She stood stock-still as Garbo, her ears back and her eyes rolling, tossed her head up and down rapidly. When Peg didn't move, Garbo calmed down, and finally stretched her neck out to snuffle Peg all over. Peg was like a statue as the beautiful mare tickled her with her whiskers, sending shivers down her spine. She looked deeply into the horse's intelligent brown eyes for a moment, then Garbo dropped her head coyly, and pretended to nibble some hay on the stall floor. In spite of herself, Peg laughed. “What a flirt you are,” she crooned, caressing Garbo's velvety nose. The splendid animal accepted the caress, arching her neck with pleasure.
“Well, you've certainly charmed her,” Pat observed. “Maybe you can give me a hand here, while I change her dressing.”
“I'd love to!” Peg said, still lost in Garbo's rich brown gaze.
Peg held Garbo steady while Pat's skillful fingers unwrapped the bandage from Garbo's right foreleg. From her vantage point, Peg could admire Pat's tanned, muscular forearms and glossy black hair. When the bandage was off, Pat glanced up at Peg, with a swift smile. “The dressing has to be changed every day,” he explained. “Garbo has a strained tendon, and the best thing for her is a nice hot pack of Epsom salts.” While he worked, he continued talking. “Mrs. Huntley wants to show her when she's well. She's too fine an animal to be just an old saddle horse, teaching little kids how to ride. Mrs. Huntley thinks that by showing her, we could pull in some new business. We're going to try her out on the jumps when she's well.”
Together they prepared the new dressing, and soon they were talking away as if they'd known each other forever. Peg told Pat how she'd been coming to the stables since she was six years old, and how much she loved horses. It turned out they'd both read many of the same booksâ
King of the Wind
, and even
A Girl and Her Horse
“How funny that you've read that!” Peg exclaimed. “Most boys won't read something if they think it's a âgirl's book.' ”
Pat blushed, and said, “Myâmy sister had a copy, and I happened to read it when I was sick . . .”
Sensing he was embarrassed, Peg changed the subject. “You're so lucky to have this job here! I'd love to have a job like this, but my mother would never let me. She says, âThere's a reason the term is stable
“I know,” Pat said. “Most places around here wouldn't even think of hiring a stable
“That's awful!” said Peg indignantly. “When I have my own stables, I'm going to hire nobody but girls!” She couldn't help resenting Pat his privileged position, just a little bit.
“I know how you feel,” said Pat somberly. “I'm just taking advantage of an outmoded system of discrimination. But I have to.” He paused a second and looked at Peg intently with his level gray eyes. “You see . . . we really need the money at home. My Dad died a couple years back, and my mom works as a cleaning lady . . .”
“IâI see,” said Peg a little awkwardly, not used to such a frank discussion of finances.
“I haven't told her yet that I'm working here. She wouldn't like the idea of me being a stable . . . boy. She thinks I'm baby-sitting.”
“Baby-sitting!” Peg said, surprised.
“Sure,” Pat replied, clearing his throat. “Lots of boys baby-sit in Havertown.”
Havertown! That was where Della, the Gardner family maid, lived. Peg realized how little she knew about the world outside of Chatham. She was stirred to admiration as she thought of Pat and the hardships he faced. The concerns of the other girls at the country club, her own worries about popularity, and the Fall Frolic suddenly seemed trivial. In a flash, she made up her mind that she would stop trying to fit in. She'd rather be like Pat, making her own way in the world, than the most popular girl at Chatham Day!
When they had finished, Peg was reluctant to part from Pat. It was so pleasant talking to someone who cared for horses as much as she did. She lingered a little as Pat put the brushes in the empty bucket. “It was fun helping,” she said. “Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow?”
Pat grinned at her. “I'm here every afternoon.” Then, as if he regretted his friendliness, he snatched up the bucket and hurried out the door.
It had grown late while Peg helped Pat, and now she had time for only a quick canter on Merrylegs. Afterward she hurriedly stabled the pony, with frequent glances at her watch. Mother and Carol already disapproved of her visits to the stablesâit would never do to be tardy to dinner!
Peg was perspiring from her furious pedaling when she slipped in the back door. “Is that you, Peg?” called a voice. “Come here.” Mother! Peg reluctantly followed the voice to the front hall. Her mother was taking off her blue veiled hat in front of the hall mirror, fluffing her blond curls with a well-manicured hand. Turning, she exclaimed sharply, “Peg, what are you doing in those dreadful jodhpurs? I thought you were going to the country club with Carolâweren't Doreen and Marjorie going to be there too?”
Remembering her new resolution, Peg lifted her head defiantly. “I'm through with Doreen and Marjorie!” she cried, stomping her booted foot for emphasis. “They're nothing but a pair of nasty old fakes!”
“Peg! Really!” her mother exclaimed in horror.
“They can go on trying to be glamour girls if that's how they get their kicks, but from now on I'm going to the stables every day! I'm going to help Pat take care of the horses! I'm going to learn everything about horses and never spend a second more in a skirt than I have to!” With that, Peg raced up the stairs, ignoring her mother's shocked exclamations.
“Horses! Not again! And who is
Once safely in her room, Peg began to calm down. She hoped Dad could smooth things over. He seemed to understand that she was different from other girls. She took off her riding boots, grabbed a book off the nightstand, and curled up on her bed. Whenever life seemed too hard to bear, Peg always chose the same book, and it didn't matter how many times she'd read it, it always gave her the same wonderful shivery feeling. With a happy sigh, she opened the battered green cover of
Journey to a Horse
Dinner that night was a strained affair. Her mother and Carol, both tight-lipped, exchanged glances over Peg's head as she stolidly ate her pot roast and mashed potatoes. As Della cleared the plates, her father coughed once or twice and then said with the genial air which made him a top sales manager at Shandygaff Industries, “What's this about you missing the Junior Miss thingamajig at the country club, Peg? That's not very nice disappointing those gals, is it?”
“They're just a bunch of old snobs!” said Peg with feeling.
“Well, I like that,” Carol exclaimed witheringly, laying down her fork. “Those are some of my very best friends you're talking about, not to mention me!”
“Peg, I don't know where you get this attitude!” their mother burst out. “Those girls are your classmates and friends; they're the kind of people we want to associate with. But you seem unwilling to cooperate! All your time is spent at the stables!”
“Aw, Peg's not doing any harm,” Johnny put in his two cents. “She's got as much right as the next fellow to wear her silly jodhpurs.”
“I think you should forbid her to go to the stables,” Carol told their mother.
“Now, Carol,” Peg's father broke in. “All things in moderation, as my old prof used to tell us. Say, I've got an idea!” Mr. Gardner said as Della handed him a fresh martini. “Peg can go to the stables, but only if”âhe held up his hand as Peg let loose a squeal of pleasureâ“she also does her part on the Fall Frolic at the country club. That's the Junior Miss project, isn't it, Carol? What do you say, Peg?”
Peg's face fell at the mention of the Fall Frolic, but she knew she didn't have a choice. After all, Daddy paid the monthly stable bill. “All right, Daddy,” she said slowly.
“That's Daddy's girl!” he said with a loving smile of approval as Della placed dishes of lemon meringue pie in front of them.
The next few weeks Peg spent every afternoon except Thursdays at the stable. Slowly, Garbo's strained tendon recovered, and Pat began giving her a little light exercise, taking her for short rides around the stable grounds. Often Peg, on Merrylegs, accompanied them. The two horses had become fast friends, and happy-go-lucky Merrylegs seemed to steady the nervous mare, who was prone to starting at even a falling leaf. Pat and Peg, too, had become closer than Peg had ever imagined a boy and girl could be. Pat listened sympathetically to Peg's accounts of her troubles with her mother, the country club, the Junior Miss League. In turn, Pat told Peg his dream of going to school to become a veterinarian after graduating from Consolidated High that year, though he continued to speak little of his home or family.