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In the back of the Jeep, amid empty shells and scattered feathers, is a cage holding Ruff and Ruff's blanket. Ruff is a 7-year-old Brittany, a dog not of field-trial stock but of local parentage, a dog, as Landy puts it, "with common sense and a birdy nose." Ruff is still coming off his summer feed of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches vacuumed from the hands of Landy's two kids, so there is still some heft about his ribs, but he will run that off in a week. Ruff loves the game of grouse as much as his master.
We drive for 20 miles, away from the factory outlets, fudge shops and ski stores that have taken over so much of southern Vermont, toward the overgrown farmland of grouse country. Along the way Landy points out old orchards now speckled with second homes and swales of alder and maple and poplar circumscribed by posted signs, and he laments the changes he has seen in 20 years of grousing: "See those apples over there? That used to be a heck of a covert. I got 27 birds out of there one year. But look at the houses in there now." Then, in resignation, he adds, "God, but this grouse hunting is so much a part of me that I take this stuff, these buildings, as almost a personal attack."
But the flashy second homes soon turn into more typical Vermont houses, some covered in tar paper, some of un-painted wood. The road narrows and the blacktop ends. Ruff feels the bumps and begins to whine and yelp, because he knows the game is near. So do we, and we talk of grouse.
"Well, just about everything has been said about this game," says Landy. "I don't do anything really special. I walk hard. I'll go eight or 10 miles in a day—7:30 till 5. And I'll cover an area thoroughly. Sometimes, you know, if you go back through a piece two hours after you first work it, you'll find new birds have moved in.
"I don't do much to prepare for the season, although I should. Any grouse hunter should. It is the hardest hunting, physically, I know of. Running would probably be good, but the best thing is just getting out in the woods and walking. Nothing else gets you in shape for all the hills and the mud and the barbed wire. God, I must fall on my face a dozen times a day! I used to shoot some clay birds, but I was always terrible at it. Just embarrassing. So I don't do that anymore, although I probably should. But I've seen it work for a lot of people, that and getting a gun that fits, because with grouse—well, you know this—with grouse you just don't have time to do anything much but throw the gun up and fire, and it's better to fire where you are looking.
"If I have developed any special knack over the years it is sort of a sixth sense to follow a bird after a flush, follow it up for a second or a third flush. That's important. And if you can get another peek at him, he'll sit for you longer than he did on that first flush, and you can get a better shot.
" 'Course, he really does all the work." Landy jerks his head toward Ruff. "We work well together, old Ruff and I, because I hunt alone most of the time. We work as a team. For example, when Ruff's on point, I always try to get around in front of him and come in on him head on. That way we box the bird in between us. If you come in behind the dog, the bird is apt to run. And sometimes we'll get a bird pinned down so tight that I'll have to toss a shell at Ruff to get him to bump the bird. He'll creep up on a running bird, but he usually won't bump a point. But, you know all this...." Which is one of Landy's favorite phrases, and a nice one it is, for it makes the bungler feel as if he is up to the hero's game.
We come to a barrier across the road and pull off. Ruff pops out of the car to sniff the edge of the road. Landy fills his pockets with shells. I ask him about the light loads he uses, and he tells me that he will switch to an ounce of No. 8 shot when the leaves are down and grouse occasionally can be gunned at long range. But now, early in the season when the trees are still full, when the grouse are up and gone in the blink of an eye, when the shooting is close or nothing, seven-eighths of an ounce of No. 9s will do.
The hunt begins. We drop down a draw lined with thorn apples and briars. Ruff courses ahead. His stub of a tail vibrates like a metronome gone mad. He sucks in scent in barely audible whuffs, rhythmic counterpoint to his jangling bell, which plays the tune of a nervous temple dancer.
Landy is close up to Ruff. He carries his gun in one hand, grasped by the pistol grip with the stock wedged under his forearm. While I trip over fallen branches, he slides by them quickly, bobbing and weaving in a half crouch. At the bottom of the draw, Ruffs bell falls silent. Landy spots him to the left, locked on a point. He glides toward him, whispering, "Easy, Bucko, easy Buck." "Buck" is Landy's nickname for things close and dear. He calls his son Buck, too.