Twelve-year-old Tembu lives with his father Baldeo, mother, and young sister in a tribal village on the outskirts of a jungle forest in India. They rely on the produce from a small rice field for subsistence, but the land's paltry yield provides them with little more than a bare living.
To supplement their income, Baldeo works as a watchman at a nearby way station for the railroad. Every night, he stays in a bare hut near a tunnel cut into the rock; his duty is to keep the signal lamp burning and make sure that the tunnel is clear of obstruction so that the overland mail can pass through safely.
When he does not have to help his mother and little sister at home, Tembu accompanies his father to his job at the railroad, sleeping with him in the hut. On this particular night, he awakens close to midnight to find his father preparing to leave to check the signal lamp and the tunnel. Tembu asks if he should go with Baldeo, but his father responds that it is cold outside and that the boy should stay in the shelter of the hut.
As Baldeo stumbles alone through the darkness, he thinks about the wild animals he might encounter. He has heard tales of a famous man-eating tiger who is known to frequent the area, but he has neither seen nor heard it so far during his nightly treks.
Despite the dangers in the forest, Baldeo walks with confidence. He is used to the ways of the jungle and carries a weapon, a small axe that is "fragile to look at but deadly when in use." The axe, which his father made for him, is an extension of himself, and he is capable of wielding it with great skill against wild animals.
When Baldeo reaches the tunnel, he finds that the signal light is out. Hauling the lamp down by its rope, he relights it and hoists it back into position. When this task is done, he walks quickly down the length of the tunnel to make sure it is clear, then returns to the entrance. The train is late, but soon the...
(The entire section is 728 words.)