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 trembling of the ground gives notice of its imminent approach. Back at the hut, Tembu also feels the low, distant rumble; wide awake now, he waits for the train to pass and for his father to return.
In the moments before the train's arrival, a tiger suddenly springs into the area before the tunnel and heads straight towards Baldeo, who sojourns there unprotected. Knowing that flight is useless, the watchman stands firmly with his back to the signal-post, and when the tiger attacks, he leaps to the side and brings his axe down on the animal's shoulder.
Enraged, the tiger strikes again, and again Baldeo dodges and drives his axe through its shoulder, almost severing the leg. This time, though, the axe remains embedded in the bone, and Baldeo is left without a weapon. Roaring with pain, the tiger springs once more upon the man, bringing him down and tearing him apart.
The tiger sits down to lick his wounded leg; so engrossed is he in his agony that by the time he realizes that the train is bearing down on him, he has no avenue of escape. Trapped, he runs into the tunnel as fast as his wounded leg will carry him. The noise is deafening as the train follows, but when the train exits on the other side, there is only silence.
At the next station, the driver stops his train. When he examines his head-lamps, he is astonished to discover, trapped just above the vehicle's cow-catcher, a large portion of the tiger's body, cut in half by the engine. The excitement engendered by the find is a sharp contrast to the scene back at the entrance to the tunnel. There, young Tembu sobs quietly as he sits beside the body of his father, guarding it from the jackals and hyenas until the breaking of dawn.
Tembu and his mother and sister grieve for Baldeo for two whole days, but after that time, the boy takes his father's post at the tunnel, lighting the signal-lamp for the overland mail. Responsibility for the family now falls on him, but Tembu is not afraid—he has his father's axe and he knows to use it.