02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were about to be introduced to rodeo fans in Chicago in the fall of 1947, when the King of the Cowboys turned to his movie partner and said, "Honey, why don't we get married?" As he would later recall, "Dale said, 'We'll see about it,' which was a yes in my book." In fact the couple (who wed that New Year's Eve) would ride—and harmonize—together for the next half century, through some 27 Westerns (with titles including My Pal Trigger and Don't Fence Me In), a '50s TV series and more than 400 songs (including their signature, "Happy Trails to You"), until Rogers's death at 86 of congestive heart failure in 1998. On Feb. 7 the same ailment claimed Evans, 88, at their Apple Valley ranch, east of Los Angeles.
For Evans, born Frances Octavia Smith in Uvalde, Texas, and a radio singer and B-movie bit player before teaming with Rogers in 1944's The Cowboy and the Senorita, the happy trails they blazed together were marred by personal tragedy. Of their nine children—three of whom were adopted—Robin died before age 2 of heart problems, and Debbie, 12, and Sandy, 18, suffered fatal accidents. Evans, who wrote the gospel standard "The Bible Tells Me So," found strength through Christian evangelism. Still, "she took Roy's death really hard for the first year," says Dave Koch, who is married to Evans's granddaughter Shawna. "She never did stop missing him but probably came to accept that she would be with him soon."